The second or third time I met the painter Benjamin Britton he was reading poolside as other members of the university art department swam laps, towel-dried their children, and stood in line for popsicles. Sunning myself in the lounger next to him, I asked what he was reading. “Proust,” he said, adding, “it’s great.” I agreed.
That I open this review with a personal image of seeing the artist under discussion on a hot August day in Georgia may seem irrelevant. I mention it not in order to disclose that I have swum in the same waters as the painter, but because this memory and the fact that it informed and inflected my viewing of a flicker in the field offer me a means of describing the complexity of visual experience that Britton’s paintings take as their subject. What these intricately constructed pieces “know” and want to show us is that as visual perceivers we experience the empirical world as projections and refractions. Memory doesn’t taint perception, Britton’s series suggests, but rather constructs it. It’s fitting, then, that my own visual memory of Britton at the pool reading the twentieth century’s most famous literary work about memory has been inextricable from my perceptions of these pieces.
Initially, the most striking feature of the installation, a series of five interlocking canvasses, is its scale. Each canvas is 7’6” high and together they measure 34’2” across. This remarkable width and the installation’s title coyly set-up expectations of expanse—if not of a proper landscape, at least of the titular “field,” however abstract. The canvases, though, do not compose a single landscape, per se, rather the five distinct works are in conversation with one another, even though they are installed edge to edge. To emphasize this point, Britton has given each canvas its own title as well. Visually the works appear distinct from one another. They do not share a background, but instead depict five different terrains—yellow grasses, a riverbank, a beach, the top of a bench (as if one is standing on a patio or deck), and a darkened ocean, each with its own sky. Each canvas, in other words, maintains its visual autonomy, thwarting the possibility of sublime expanse.
My description might suggest that the backgrounds are instantly legible, but that is not the case, at least for me. These backgrounds compete with large prismatic shapes that occupy the greater part of each canvas’ surface, and visually speaking, the match-up is not equal. The three-dimensional figures create the illusion of depth, and several sides of each prism give the illusion of rupturing the picture plane, as if opening tempting portals into other dimensions. These trompe-l’oeil elements interfere with the eye’s ability to orient itself to the horizons implied in the various canvases—my vision was continually at play. And why look ahead when you can fall down a rabbit hole?
Britton loosely based the shapes of the prisms on maritime reflectors, metal spheres measuring several feet in diameter that are mounted to small boats. On the water these spheres reflect back the radar waves emitted by the systems of larger ships, so that in bad weather or crowded waters the smaller, more vulnerable craft will appear on the ship’s radar. Once I learned of the origin of these prisms, I couldn’t help but push the analogy to its endpoint. These prismatic reflectors are mounted to the “helm” of the paintings, suggesting that the purpose of their multiplicitous refractions is to announce the presence of what I might not notice. I, the large vessel, emitting the radar signals of my gaze, however, am too busy with the visual play the prisms afford me to take in those elements of landscape, of a ‘natural’ world depicted behind the prisms. For this reason, the function of these trompe-l’oeil reflectors within the installation are fundamentally different than the maritime tools which inspired their form. Whatever they refract or reflect back to me, the viewer, doesn’t announce the presence of the other elements of the painting but rather obscures them. And if my perceptual apparatus is here the radar signal, it seems, then, that in the context of the work, the prisms highlight the viewer’s self-absorption. The prisms foster the creation of a closed circuit between the viewer and themselves, where my vision is completely engrossed with the illusionistic refractions beamed back to me. They underline the solipsistic nature of my perception. Here, though, my vision is obfuscated by an engagement with phenomenological illusions, not my memories, the contents of my subjective past. How, then, does Britton’s piece become about something more than simple perception? Remember, he was reading Proust by the poolside.
I think my own instinctive comportment when initially viewing the work might answer this question for us. Here, I’ll sheepishly admit that I might usefully serve as the naïve viewer because when I entered the gallery I took shelter in the smallest elements of the work, as if the rest were all too much for me. And it was in the circular micro-paintings that float across the canvases in series of two, three, and four that I found comfort. These images are framed in shapes that discreetly string across all five canvases—figures reminiscent of the amoebas, paramecia, and other single-celled organisms I viewed under a microscope in fourth grade. The network they form is the only visual element that breeches the integrity of the five canvases, albeit discreetly. They are the only element of the work that treats the installation as a single visual plane. Clustered across the canvases these little paintings have a snapshot quality, many capturing a body of water or some other image of familiar landscape. In composition they were often reminiscent of vacation mementos. In these micro-paintings the viewer may encounter an animal, for example, a frog or a bird, and sometimes the human makes an appearance, one spies a clothesline for instance, but more often one sees water. I walked from one tiny painting to the next with my companion, attempting to identify familiar-looking places, knowing that we frequented some of the same swimming holes as Britton, wondering if any places in the painting were places we knew well in real life, so to speak. In other words, when confronted with the intensity of a vast artwork, I immediately and unconsciously oriented myself within it by searching for my own past in the work’s smallest representations of place. What I saw most clearly was what I felt I already knew.
A few of these micro-paintings were filled with text, and curiously I quickly passed over them, surprising for someone who makes a living playing with words. But I was busy searching for bodies of water I recognized, wanting to dip into the same river twice, it seemed. My viewing, in other words, wasn’t very different from the toddler next to me, who walked from tiny image to tiny image telling her father what the pictures brought to mind. It was only later that I learned from Britton that the language I ignored throughout the paintings were Proust quotes. It took several more weeks for me to look up the entirety of the clipped passages of Proust embedded within the work. What I found was both indictment and affirmation of my engagement with a flicker in the field: “And wasn’t my mind also like another crib in the depths of which I felt I remained ensconced, even in order to watch what was happening outside?” Proust was completely aware, it seemed, that I would be most interested in my recollections of swimming holes past, before I could even notice that I hadn’t noticed the horizon in Britton’s work.
If Britton’s aim is to show us that when it comes to engaging with our visual environments, we are always like Marcel gnawing on the cookie of our past, then I offer my personal viewing as evidence. Curiously, the implications of the fact of such solipsism emerged only as I reflected upon the installation in hindsight. Only in the course of my writing this review when the visual work was no longer a phenomenon before me but only ideation and recollection, did I link my self-engaged perceptions to our present ecological crises. In his artist statement Britton sees a flicker in the field as a piece about this crisis and it is insofar as the work offers the viewer a means of recognizing how perceptions are intensely self-absorbed. That I arrive at the greater meaning of the visual elements only once I am engaged in writing suggests something rather complex about the nature of seeing. Britton’s piece underlines how little I really am willing to see and how I feel safest in looking at what I already know. Even to arrive at this diagnosis, albeit through the mediation of his work, I found myself doing nothing more than self-reflecting.
oil on canvas, a series of five paintings, altogether 7’6” x 34’2”, mounted at Marcia Wood Gallery (2 December 2021 – 8 January 2022)