Nick Benfey, “Backyard Prism Void” Photo courtesy of the artist

The world of dreams has intrigued artists for centuries, perhaps most notably the Surrealists. The infinite source of their allure is their multidimensionality. These reveries don’t dwell in a single plane of reality but are, instead, poised at an intersection of any number of them, which forces our minds to escape the usual constructed human thought processes and enter into a universe of the irrational.

This transition frees us to experience emotions, states and sensations in unfiltered, undiluted ways that are more immediate, visceral and compelling. And if we are lucky, they help us touch into deeper truths of which we are not normally aware during our waking hours.

Two current solo shows – Nick Benfey’s “Constellations” at Moss Galleries in Portland (through Jan. 7) and “Bernard C. Meyers: Urban Abstracts” at Cove Street Arts (through Jan. 14) – hover fascinatingly in this multidimensionality.

“Constellations” debuts the work of an original and exciting painter, a Portlander-turned-New Yorker just on the cusp of 30. Benfey’s artist statement quotes the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard from his book “Poetics of Space”: “We have the impression that the stars in heaven come to live on earth, that the houses of men form earthly constellations.”

That’s probably why, as I viewed the show – and before meeting Benfey or reading his statement – Bachelard had been rattling around my brain, namely these lines from the same volume: “We comfort ourselves by reliving memories of protection. Something closed must retain our memories, while leaving them their original value as images. Memories of the outside world will never have the same tonality as those of home and, by recalling these memories, we add to our store of dreams; we are never real historians, but always near poets, and our emotion is perhaps nothing but an expression of poetry that was lost.”

With few exceptions, Benfey’s paintings are set at night, so his depiction of the closed space of memory coemerging with recollections of an outside, sometimes bygone, world arises through a layered palette of twilight blues, violets, teals and blacks, which are illuminated by streetlamps and the sparkling interior lights of houses and buildings. The latter impart the sense of Bachelard’s “earthly constellations.”


What is palpable about these scenes is the ephemerality of their nature. We know these constellations will disperse and disappear with daylight. But as our minds commit them to memory, they retain the essential glittering, shimmering beguilement that initially captivated us. In that sense, Benfey’s paintings are manifestations of the absolute subjectivity of perception and memory.

As such, they are also interrogations into what is real and what is imagined, what is interior and what is exterior. If we follow this line of questioning to its transcendental extreme, they can be seen as expressions of that liminal space between existence and non-existence, where these distinctions disappear and everything is subsumed in one porous, perpetually morphing consciousness.

Many paintings contain odd, inexplicable voids or compositional anomalies (at least from a waking, rational perspective). Most literal is “Backyard Prism Void,” a twilight scene of houses with a shared backyard and, teasingly in the foreground, a boxy cavity in the grass that opens into dark emptiness. What’s this doing here?, we wonder. Where does it lead?

The void presents us with a primal existential fear: that the self will perish if we jump into this mysterious chasm of not-knowing. This is only discomfiting, of course, if we are attached to our constructed reality. But this sort of irrational trepidation is precisely what the Surrealists trafficked in and exploited.

A painting like “Foundation” makes the void primary, a glowing and somewhat eerily magnetic presence in the center of the canvas. We sense this is not merely a building’s foundation, but a portal to some other dimension. We might feel ourselves visually skirting it, resisting being sucked into it.

Nick Benfey, “Infinite Parking Lot” Photo courtesy of the artist

“Infinite Parking Lot” also contains a void: a tunnel-like darkness in the upper third of the picture plane. It’s a bizarrely incongruous, though gorgeously painted, image of a parking lot spreading out on its own dimensional plane across a mountainous landscape. We get the sense that, if unchecked, its black asphalt will continue expanding until it obliterates everything – the road that winds around the cliffs (already partially obscured under it), the trees, the houses. Mysteriously, it’s not the road that disappears into the tunnel, but the parking lot itself. The painting completely subverts our normal way of perceiving reality.


This work’s companion is “Underneath a Parking Lot.” Here, what we feared would happen has already occurred. We’re under the parking lot seeing its underside from a grave’s-eye view. We’re no longer outside in nature but buried beneath the urban sprawl.

Nick Benfey, “Cosmic Castle and Cloverleaf Interchange” Photo courtesy of the artist

In fact, urban sprawl is one of Benfey’s undercurrents. In two works, a highway interchange and a road are dwarfed by the ghostly presences of a castle (“Cosmic Castle and Cloverleaf Interchange”) and a home (“Chimera”) looming in the sky above them. For me, these paintings brought to mind archeological sites that reveal multiple structures built on top of each other by a sequence of different civilizations. The cathedral in Toledo, Spain, for instance, was built during the 13th and 14th centuries over a mosque, which in turn was constructed on the foundations of a sixth-century church.

These can be read as layers of experience and memory that form what we identify as knowledge (the concept behind epistemology, which was the subject of Bachelard’s philosophical treatise). But most, if not all, mystical traditions also maintain the innate insubstantiality of space and time. They are merely structures we impose to order our reality. At a fundamental level, everything is always here, in this moment at every moment.

From that perspective, the castle and the home can be perceived as buildings that were razed and plowed over to build the road and highway. Yet, like the persistence of memory, they are metaphysically indestructible, always present despite their physical immateriality. Each structure, to use Bachelard’s words, is “an expression of poetry that was lost,” and Benfey is one of those people the philosopher describes as “never real historians, but always near poets.”


Bernard C. Meyers is a photographer based in Minot who, though Bachelard couldn’t be further from his mind, achieves a similar effect of altered reality through unconventionally constructed landscapes.


His methodology begins with a picture of a subject, usually architecture or streetscape. Using digital software, Meyers isolates individual elements of each shot and rearranges them, blowing up some into entire fields of color, minimizing others, then applying them to the picture plane in ways that distort and/or erase the original image.

“Urban Abstracts: Boston 8400a,” 44” x 32″ Archival Pigment Print on Hahnemühle Museum Etching Paper, Multiple Limited Edition A/P Photo by Bernard C. Meyers

The aim, explains the gallery handout, is to “rattle the bones of reality.” Meyers is interested in the interstices where photography and abstract expressionism meet. In the same statement, he explains that his goal is to “photograph something not for what it is but for what it can become.”

What these images “become” ends up referencing, intentionally or not, interesting points in art history. An image like “Salt Lake 2183,” for example, appears to straddle European neoclassical architecture and the work of Dutch master graphic artist M.C. Escher. Close scrutiny of its visual content indicates the original image might have been of a jewelry store, perhaps Tiffany & Co.

The proportions of its elliptical staircase as well as a copper mansard and brick walkway all indicate neoclassicism. So does the way Meyers composes the image, which looks almost like an architectural rendering. But, like Escher, the perspectives are multiple, skewing any logical understanding of it. What’s foreground and background? Up or down? Inside or out?

This issue of perspective also harks back, in certain images, to 11th-century Chinese painting, where landscapes actually contained multiple views – one from above, one from below, one straight on – in a single image. The impression is that these landscapes are floating in an indeterminate space.

“Urban Abstracts: Hong Kong 7714bc,” 32”x 24”, Archival Pigment Print on Hahnemühle Museum Etching Paper, Multiple Limited Edition 1/5 Photo by Bernard C. Meyers

The floating quality is most apparent in “Hong Kong 7714bc.” A scaffolded architecture seems to levitate in the middle of the picture within a cacophony of fuming colors – red, yellow, turquoise. Rather than an ethereal landscape of mountains and trees and waterfalls drifting among the clouds, this feels like a dense urban landscape suspended within the frenetic energy of the city. “Chicago 192,” “Hong Kong 8583a,” “Salt Lake 1847” and others seem to transmit this quality, mainly through what looks like elements that Meyers has manipulated to telegraph a sense of shifting blurriness or vapor.

Others, such as “Boston 4272a” or “New York, Midtown Madness,” seem fractured through a Cubist lens. Or they can appear like a Kurt Schwitters collage, as in “Hong Kong 7596ac” and “Miami 7383.”

Whether one makes these associations or not is irrelevant. The mesmerizing aspect is the way our mind tries to decipher the clash of colors and forms pulled out of any representational context – obviously a chief objective of abstract expressionism.

Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: 

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