Sometimes a good artist’s first show feels more like their second show—the exhibition after a dazzling debut, wherein gains are consolidated, weaknesses dealt with, and directions altered. For the last three years, 31-year-old painter Benjamin Edwards has quietly dazzled in group shows. Every time I saw one of his detonating abstract-geometric landscapes—a fusion of Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie in hyperspace, non-Euclidean Lari Pittman, and Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase spun in a cyclotron—I was wowed.
Judging from Convergence, the earliest and best painting in Edwards’s debut (and the canvas that looks most like his previous work), had he wanted to, he might have dazzled again. But he doesn’t. Instead, this apparently thoughtful, self-critical artist is branching out and trying to speed up his process. While Convergence is a celebratory, multifaceted candidate for whatever it is we’re calling a masterpiece these days, the other five works on view don’t pack the same visual firepower or intellectual clarity. Two small paintings look like generic geometric abstraction; the big new 18-foot print on vinyl that depicts hundreds of Web sites is intriguing, but reads as wallpaper and is physically inert. Compared with the self-explanatory jolt of Convergence, the two other large-scale paintings feel like more complicated ways of saying similar things. Critics often whine when artists get formulaic. However, had Edwards stuck with the formula that got him here—if only for this exhibition—his debut wouldn’t be so transitional.
You can understand why he wanted to change. On every level, Edwards’s paintings are exhaustive, and clearly exhausting to make. Convergence took more than 2500 hours to paint, and many weeks of field work. The image is an amalgam of scores of digital photographs the artist made of chain stores around Washington, D.C. The photos were programmed into a computer, simplified and color coded, then superimposed on one another and meticulously painted. Previously, Edwards used this formula stunningly to reproduce all the Starbucks franchises in Seattle, legions of chain stores in Providence, Rhode Island, and numberless retail sites along Route 80 between New York and San Francisco.
Essentially, all of Edwards’s paintings are contemporary landscapes, albeit busy ones. In Jasper Johns’s famous words, Edwards depicts “things the mind already knows.” We might add “things we know too well.” His work confirms that both the strip-city sprawl endemic in L.A. and the mind-numbing nullity of architecture-as-advertising-as-architecture now blight the entire country.
Edge, the second-best work on hand, involved more than 1800 hours of painting and 500 miles of driving. Tracing the perimeter of Los Angeles—from San Clemente to Malibu—Edwards photographed more than 600 massive industrial parks and shopping outlets. Instead of his usual additive procedure, however, he subjects the data to an elaborate subtractive program, removing information that appears in two smaller works, Dump (Edge Refuse) and Fill (Dump Retrieval). The results are obscure, but you can discern vestiges of those huge, boxy structures (i.e., Home Depots and Wal-Marts) that render the American landscape, in the words of Rem Koolhaas, “a low-grade purgatory”—buildings that are closer to wavelengths than to architecture.
Convergence transforms this depressing condition into something breathtaking. Composed of a matrix of vectoring lines, recognizable geometric shapes, bright opaque colors, and a kaleidoscopic array of abstracted logos, Convergence is an all-at-once, hyperkinetic treatise on edge-city architecture, replication, and the culture of consumerism, delivered with the eye-popping razzle-dazzle of Andreas Gursky’s 99 Cent. In her succinct catalog essay, Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn describes the refracting hivelike structure that dominates the painting’s center as “the ultimate Megastructure.” This fantastic, hallucinogenic superdome—part Piranesi, part Canaletto, part Jetsons—looks like Houston in the 23rd century, a baroque church from another dimension, or the highest realm ever devised for the video game Doom.
Imagine Ed Ruscha’s early conceptual work updated as Every Building From Sunset Strip to Denver or 600 Gasoline Stations at Once. This is the mutated, Warholian multiplication Edwards is into. Duchamp called this overlapping, episodic agglomeration “dismultiplication” or “elementary parallelism.” The Futurists called it “a new dimensionality.” Whatever it is, Edwards strikes a balance between moralizing and hysteria, the pared-down and the psyched-up, while channeling the spirits of Eadweard Muybridge, Al Held, Zaha Hadid, Matthew Ritchie, and Peter Halley.
If this were only cubism with a computer, or deconstructive preachiness, his paintings could be dismissed as graphic didacticism. But Edwards has a scrupulous touch and a sly eye. You can make out elements derived from Starbucks’ swirling-smoke wallpaper, Burger King’s ersatz brick, McDonald’s golden arches, and more. Paint emulates the texture of artificial grass, flocking, or fake wood. Even a fabled labor-intensive, anal-retentive slowpoke like Chuck Close allows for improvisational moments and looseness. Not Edwards. Everything is planned out and executed almost to perfection.
Unfortunately, the most recent work, Decoherence, is also the weakest. However, in transition or not, Edwards is already much more than a young painter to watch. He’s an artist who has distilled something profound and profoundly sad about the American landscape into his paintings: how, after coming this far, we’ve turned so much into so little.