Works by Justin Benjamin
Curated by Amaani Hepburn
Tuesday, February 27th, 2024 – Tuesday, May 26th, 2024
West and West Hill Streets
Nassau, N.P.The Bahamas
Justin Benjamin (b. 1997, Nassau, Bahamas and raised in Marsh Harbour, Abaco) is a painter who primarily works out of his studio in New Providence. Most of his painting scenes depict life on family islands he has frequented throughout his life – Eleuthera, Long Island and Abaco – and his work places the audience squarely in the perspective of the intimate voyeur. In his book Vermeer and the Delft School (2001), Walter A. Liedtke, a scholar of Vermeer, describes him as “a perceptive invader of privacy”. As the intimate voyeur, Benjamin acts as an observer of the unperceived, mundane or daily happenings of others. Through them, we witness the private, secluded life of the islands’ locals, peering through poles and structural cut-outs. The viewer adopts Benjamin’s eyes as the romantic and becomes the first person in his reminiscing and memories, retelling of days and nights, either from recent events (such as the never-ending night party in Abaco, as depicted in Just Chilling or the collection of young men gallivanting on the boat in Do It Again) or reconstructions of long past memories, (such as the Aboconian marble scene of young school boys playing for keeps in Marble Season).
How Benjamin constructs his compositions contributes to the more extensive practice of interior composition found in art history. Comparisons can be drawn to Vermeer, who famously tackles aspects of voyeurism through presenting the intimate/interpersonal interior. In Vermeer’s case, the viewer is often looking into a room, indicated by Vermeer’s adept use of depth and by placing windows, curtains, or doors in the foreground for the viewer to look through. Like Vameer, Benjamin creates this intimacy in his paintings through formalistic construction, often utilizing linear point perspective to create planes of interiority. By physically lowering the audience’s centre of view, Benjamin constructs the feeling of intimacy. He constructs his compositions with borders that alter the audience’s scope with the edges of shorelines, boundaries of rooms and walls, and landscape. Benjamin envelopes the audience in his field of vision, making them an accomplice in his spying, a secondary voyeur. In Keep It Clean, Benjamin not only forces the audience to look through the wooden porch onto a beach, but the depth indicated by the lines following the horizon makes the scene we are viewing even further away. The effect is that the viewer is noticeably not a part of the scene itself but a visitor just passing through.
However, this viewpoint is much different from that of the typical expat romanticists, such as Hildegarde Hamilton or J.F. Coonley, who captured scenes of island living without depicting the day-to-day intimacy. Benjamin pulls from his memories of lived experience, and this is a direct contrast to an artist who sits and paints a picture of the beach in plain air as if to capture a photograph of the scene rather than be a witness to the scene itself. With Benjamin’s paintings, he is not only trying to communicate the beauty of the beach but the experience of being on that beach – and for him, sitting on the porch and looking through the wooden panels onto the shore is what he remembers most significantly about visiting that beach in [Eleuthera]. Like Vermeer, Benjamin creates intimacy with the audience in Keep It Clean by indicating that we are also in this room, peering through panels and sharing the experience of looking at the subject with him.
Benjamin’s viewpoint is that of the local, someone who experiences the place they are depicting in a more nostalgic sense, rather than a viewpoint of someone who has travelled here and has a much different relationship with the image that they want to communicate with the audience. Thus, his work naturally juxtaposes constructions of an imaginary paradise seen through touristic depictions of the islands. In the typical tourism ad, the local is often regulated to that of a background character or an invisible prop, a part of the landscape. Benjamin’s work, however, not only places the locals at the forefront of his renderings but invites the local audience to remember their own experiences with the scenes that he depicts. In Do It Again, Benjamin showcases a line of black young men soaked in joy on a boat in front of crystal blue seas. In Left Inside Da Car, Benjamin uses a wide, sprawling lens capturing not only the shimmering waters but also the island “cityscape” distanced behind casuarina trees. Benjamin turns a recount of the mundane activity of being left in the vehicle, on the sideline, observing another complete their errands and trails the viewer’s eyes across this layered landscape of crystal waters, encroaching casuarinas, and dotted buildings and gas station in the back.
At his core, Benjamin is a wanderer in his own home and creates paintings that reflect this perspective as a viewpoint as he travels throughout the archipelago. As he drifts from island to island, falling into local activities and family flings, Benjamin records his own experiences and invites the viewer to participate in these memories with him. Unlike the static picture of some romanticists and the alienation of the tourism ad, Benjamin is a voyeur in the middle of the room, holding a connection with each space he documents. Through his paintings, he creates an eye, a viewfinder for the audience. He places them squarely in his vantage point, inducting them into his activities, ramblings, and the interesting mundane.