A Joyful Black Noise: Paul Stephen Benjamin at the Hudgens Center for Art

Burnaway 2020

You hear Paul Stephen Benjamin’s exhibition Compositions in Absolute Black long before you see it. The first gallery at the Hudgens Center for Art initially appears empty, but the monochromatic black walls provide a generous canvas for the viewer to stop and listen. A soaring, kaleidoscopic symphony of musical and spiritual harmony spills sonically out of the main gallery. Upon my arrival in the space, the sun was spilling through a white window shade, the faint shadow of tree branches swaying, finding the pulse, dancing. I stood still for a moment, paradoxically frozen while watching the silhouette stomp and sway.

The source of this cacophony is Benjamin’s Sonata in Absolute Black (2020), a thirty-six-channel video showing the artist’s fingers clanging away at each of a Steinway’s black keys. One finger furiously plays as another begins to slow, but the music never stops. Stacked three rows high, the monitors stretch across nearly the entire length of the wall. Benjamin’s opus is spontaneous, full of rhythmic chaos. Each key has its own language, its own tone, joy, and urgency, but their collective power emerges only when they rush together toward their unfolding climaxes. At first, I thought Benjamin was piloting this flight and that viewers were simply trying to stay on board, but then I realized no one was steering. The artist is not in the pilot’s cabin but beside us in turbulence, finding his voice, determining what to say, when to say it, and precisely at what volume. Even now, back at home, I have gooseflesh thinking recalling the work and the weight of this realization.

When presenting two large-scale video installations side-by-side, each with booming audio tracks, many artists would resolve the issue with headphones. Benjamin, however, instead adds to the room’s sonic density, allowing the audio from Daily Meditation (Black is Beautiful) (2020) to join his Sonata.  In this video installation, a close-up shot shows the carriage of a vintage typewriter spooling out the Black Power slogan Black is Beautiful, repeating over and over, line after line. It is a philosophy, an affirmation of cultural pride. At the scale of the video’s projection, the text is big and bold, each line chasing the next. As the piece builds, the words feel like layers of clay, rocks, sand, and wood, composing a landscape, reinforcing the foundation. Every time the type-hammer swings up to meet the paper brings a moment of gratification. In the present social climate, this phrase (which some of us recognize as self-evident) resonates with pathos, love, familiarity, and ferocity. The typewriter has no backspace; the words cannot be untyped. The words cannot be unseen. The chik-chik-cha-chik-chik-ding-ziiiiiiiiiiiiiiiip sounds emanating off the typewriter join in seamlessly, rounding out the pulsating piano. 

The fruits of the labor shown in Daily Meditation can be seen in Black is Beautiful (Royal Typewriter) (2019). A grid of thirty-six standard sheets of framed paper repeat the phrase: Black is Beautiful. Blackisbeautiful Black iwBeautiful. So much of the exhibition is about the necessity to be heard immediately, but this work offers chance to sit still and read, to think about permanence and distribution, to spend time with text that has become untethered from grammatical and syntactic rules, too impassioned to adhere to rigid structure. Mostly legible, the text takes dips and bumps— capital B’s frequently float above the remainder of their words, periods smear into the next sentence, spacing is irregular—but these flaws pull the viewer in closer for inspection. It’s when you start seeing the words line-by-line that you notice the nuances. Interspersed between the declarations are fragments of openhearted notes to the artist’s friends and those he admires, among other phrases: Kevin Cole is Beautiful. A Joyful Black noise. Shirley Horn is Beautiful. Sterling Humphrey is Beautiful. A Joyful Black noise.

Comprising just five works of art, Compositions in Absolute Black demonstrates Benjamin’s clear and concise vision. I have seen numerous iterations of his installations and exhibitions through the years (in Atlanta, Savannah, and New York), but here, at the Hudgens, I am confident he has never looked—or sounded—better.