By JENNIFER S. LI
Nestled in the wilderness of Cleveland National Forest in Southern California, Michele Benzamin-Miki’s studio is a sunny, bright, open space. She begins all her work with meditation, bypassing the rational mind so that creative, intuitive and subconscious forces take hold. From Marina Abramovic to Yoko Ono to the Mark Rothko chapel, meditation and visual art are not an unlikely pairing. The physical power of a brushstroke is the first step to many of Benzamin-Miki’s ink and graphite on paper works—often, these gestures are borrowed from her non-violent practice of Iaido sword, in which she holds a black belt ranking. Brandishing a large brush soaked with deep, dark Sumi ink, she paints a single, forceful, determined stroke. The stroke, like pouring asphalt for a road, paves the way forward.
“When people think of power, they often think of a structure that is either over them or under them. We’ve forgotten there is this thing called inner power.” Cultivating a meditation practice that spans over 30 years, Michele Benzamin-Miki maximizes the potential of her mind and spirit. Practiced in Aikido and Iaido sword, she also continues to hone her physical prowess. All of these disciplines are harnessed in the potential of her creative power.
In Momentum, a lush, sensuous, ovoid-shaped brushstroke encircles a woman like a chick about to hatch. Though two-dimensional, the work on paper is sculptural in its imagery. Her arms, hands and fingers are outstretched and taut like Daphne’s in Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, but this is not a dainty, fragile creature or a damsel in distress. The saturated, carnal black brushstroke loops in and out, snaking up her strong, broad swimmer’s back and twisting around her arm, giving the figure momentum and thrust. Benzamin-Miki’s works are a balanced combination of intuition and calculation, abstraction and realism. The initial, intuited brushstroke guided her to the pose of the figure, which is based on a photograph of herself.
Arc begins with a fluid, angular stroke, with a shark’s fin rise and fall. An abstracted body bends over the peak, creating an architectural archway. The arch, a gateway demarcating one place from another, has long symbolized new opportunity, strength and power. Ribs protrude with regularity on the figure’s torso like crown molding. The arms are elegantly omitted, like the Venus de Milo or the ruins of a Greek kouros.
Many of the ideas for Benzamin-Miki’s paintings and drawings come to her in dreams, which she records through detailed journals. Fifteen years ago, she dreamt about a distinct body of black and white work, though she only began making these visions into concrete works fairly recently. Flow is the first of these works that she first saw in a dream. A splash of dark ink spreads in the center of the paper, flowing down into a serpentine curve that trails off the edge. At the root of the brushstroke is a finely rendered image of a woman’s muscular back, her shoulders raised above head. Benzamin-Miki prefers portraying the woman’s body from the back, inverting the tradition of the male gaze upon the female body and returning agency to the strength of the portrayed figure.
The serenity of Benzamin-Miki’s pieces are interrupted by the frenetic pace in Lean Into. For this piece, Benzamin-Miki accessed her Kundalini energy, or her chakra: the energy that goes down into the tailbone. “My wrist was going crazy on a lot of the pieces,” she explains. “It was a continuous flow with a lot of strokes. I felt like I was tapping into that energy that goes up and down my spine.” A ghostly, indistinct figure of a contrapposto woman emerges from this spinal infrastructure.
Benzamin-Miki’s works begin with the power of the mind, and visualize the strength of the body. In Elevation, a pillar of a sturdy looking woman emerges from the wide, coarse, vertical brushstroke. She bends backwards and her posture is unyielding; her arms flexed and extended to reveal physical strength. Her eyes are pointed upward into the proverbial sky, emanating focus and determination. Power and strength are incarnate in her. Benzamin-Miki muses, partly to herself: “I think I’m painting my heart… I’m making that visible for myself.” There is power in being seen, not just by others, but in seeing yourself.
Jennifer S. Li is the LA Desk Editor for ArtAsiaPacific and a regular contributor to publications including Art in America, Sight Unseen, Art Review and more.