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Review: Amy Bennett at Richard Heller Gallery

January 22, 2009 | 11:30 am

PaulaBrooklyn painter Amy Bennett was born in Maine. In her second show at Richard Heller Gallery, 13 strange new paintings of recreational campsites, “At the Lake,” recall that evergreen locale.

They even exploit the look of vacation snapshots, both in their scenic aspects and the playful nature of their compositions, as well as in their disconcerting surface sheen. Bennett paints in oil on wood panels of modest size — the smallest are 6 inches square, most are less than 24 inches on the largest side — but she coats the surface with a slick, polished resin that visually obliterates any mark of the artist’s hand.

This photographic sheen, however, is immediately undermined. Upon closer look, the rustic settings that emerge from the carefully applied paint are toylike. The straightforward brushwork seems jelled in aspic — human yet remote, touched yet inaccessible, somehow slightly morbid. These landscapes turn out to be still lifes: Bennett first built a three-dimensional diorama of a lakeside scene, then painted scenes from that.

Bennett also uses the watery reflections provided by the lake to compound the mystery. Reflection as contemplation and rumination is mirrored in the water’s surface, which adds an almost hallucinatory edge to the memory of these places. Recreation is refreshment by means of an agreeable diversion, but trouble lurks in this rustic, very American paradise.

A man apparently helping a woman stand up might also be dragging her corpse into the bushes. A group of hunters gathering by the shore possesses a vague aura of vigilantism. A woman on a glowing sandbar seems marooned. A small cabin on a tiny island surrounded by water has the appearance of an almost desperate getaway.

Even a shoreline scene of a matronly woman, “Paula,” standing at a dock seems quietly fraught. A dog on a raft out in the water is man’s best friend, now stranded and remote. These are pictures of loss and alienation, rendered with sometimes overworked but never heavy-handed skill.

-- Christopher Knight

Richard Heller Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 453-9191, through Feb. 14. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Above: Amy Bennett's "Paula" (2008), oil on panel. Credit: Richard Heller Gallery