Featured in
Issue 215

Scott Benzel Gambles with the Avant-Garde

At Bel Ami, the artist uses the sonic and sculptural qualities of casino games to invoke modernism’s long obsession with chance

BY Jan Tumlir in Reviews , US Reviews | 01 SEP 20

Although Scott Benzel is known as much as an experimental musician as a visual artist, his latest exhibition at Bel Ami is reduced to a single, compelling sound that periodically punctures the silence of the gallery. Its source is easily identifiable: a wooden ball bouncing between the numerical slots of a vintage roulette wheel. This device, which freely invites spinning by gallery-goers, is rigged up with contact microphones feeding into three identical oscilloscopes that render its aural output as visual data. Three distinct waveform patterns appear on these screens, each determined by a different operating equation, hinting at the random nature of this sound-to-image translation while simultaneously enfolding it in an aura of technologically determined inevitability.

Scott Benzel
Scott Benzel, ‘Mindless Pleasures’, 2020, exhibition view, Bel Ami, Los Angeles. Courtesy: Bel Ami, Los Angeles

Arranged in a semi-circle around this curious assemblage (Hybrid Monte Carlo, 2020) stands a collection of pristine metal tripods (Telepathic Gambler, 2020); extended to human height, they give the impression of a cheering audience. Playing cards, drawn from the deck that André Breton designed with his surrealist cohort at the height of World War II, have been affixed to their protruding shafts. In Jeu de Marseilles (1943), the hierarchical order of Kings and Queens is replaced with a collection of radical dreamers, including Sigmund Freud and Comte de Lautréamont – wild cards all. The deck amounts to an object lesson in how an increasingly unpredictable reality can encourage meditation on the metaphysics of chance and, more specifically, how the turn to involuntary and immanent modes of composition within avant-garde art was largely precipitated by a sense of time hanging in the balance. If the highly ambiguous figure of the gambler remains perhaps the pre-eminent archetype of modernity, it is for good reason: freely renouncing command of the situation, he nevertheless aims to break the bank.

Scott Benzel
Scott Benzel, ‘Mindless Pleasures’, 2020, exhibition view, Bel Ami, Los Angeles. Courtesy: Bel Ami, Los Angeles

For Benzel, this figure is also a key to unlocking our present. The mutating abstractions produced by his oscilloscopes conform to formulae devised by the mathematicians Edward Lorenz and Henri Poincaré, forefathers of what has come to be known as chaos theory. The collusion of 20th-century aesthetic experimentalism and stochastic number-crunching is further probed in N’Abolira (2020), which features two pages and the cover of the original Gallimard edition of Stephane Mallarmé’s volume of freeform verse, A Throw of the Dice Will never Abolish Chance (1897). These are slotted into a complex, wall-hung structure comprised of three wooden frames that lock together into a form that itself somewhat resembles an open book. Dangling beneath it from two wires is a pair of dice that land on yet another book, this one lying open on the floor to reveal a series of unrelated numerals piled up in neat columns. Published by the RAND Corporation in 1955, the publication’s title says it all: A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates. Within Benzel’s system, it reads both as a logistical assault on the fully emancipated poetic spirit and an act of technocratic absurdism

Scott Benzel
 ‘Mindless Pleasures’, 2020, exhibition view, Bel Ami, Los Angeles. Courtesy: Bel Ami, Los Angeles

Marcel Duchamp, that inveterate gambler, also makes an appearance here (posing in a found photograph alongside Betty Asher in Las Vegas), as do a range of items sourced from lower on the cultural ladder: the poster from Robert Altman’s 1974 film California Split, Vegas tourist ephemera and Bitcoin ads. The lines drawn between these various areas of interest, esoteric and mundane, give rise to an alarming constellation that might well be the rising sign of our current moment, in which the antinomy between control and chaos no longer holds. Did the most anarchic avant-gardes play a part in defining the conspiracies of guided disaster and risk management that we must all now endure at the hands of multinational financiers? Yes and no, says Benzel, for his show can also be approached from the opposite direction, remembering that, in every true game of chance, we restart from zero.

Main image: Scott Benzel, ‘Mindless Pleasures’, 2020, exhibition view, Bel Ami, Los Angeles. Courtesy: Bel Ami, Los Angeles

Jan Tumlir is an author and teacher based in Los Angeles, USA. His latest book Conversations (2020), published by Inventory Press, is a series of dialogues with the artist Jorge Pardo.