In 'Visages' collection, painter Francisco Benitez draws from the past to create a new world
Updated: Apr 14, 2021
By Cristee Cook
Dallas, TX -- Last week I was invited to visit Maestri Gallery for their new show:
Visages: Recent Portraits by Francisco Benitez. Benitez is a painter based in Santa Fe.
Located in the Exposition Park neighborhood in East Deep Ellum, Maestri Gallery offers a quiet oasis from city life. The small gallery/design studio boasts an affordable collection of regional, contemporary artists and Gallery Manager Christopher Huffman’s sophisticated eye has resulted in a simple but powerful viewing experience.
In the collage of effervescent art that welcomes you inside Maestri, Francisco Benitez’s work immediately draws your attention. The wiser-than-her-years gaze of a young girl pierces out from a painting entitled “Princess of Vast Forests,” and from there, the mesmerizing story of Benitez’s work unfolds. Using techniques from master painters of the past, Benitez renders in oil, and in several pieces, an ancient technique known as encaustic: a mix of pigments and heated wax, dating back to Ancient Greece and Egypt.
Visages, while categorized as portraits, breaks away from the paradigm of stuffy, commissioned living room portraits. The paintings in this collection are parts of different series Benitez has created that offer commentary on contemporary subjects like climate change, gender roles, and human psychology. Benitez has juxtaposed ancient techniques with a critical lens on contemporary subjects. He shared, “The work from the past that touches us the most is portraiture. A portrait of a person that lived 2000 years ago, that's a really vivid portrait, you feel like he's like sitting there with you. A portrait is art in its simplest form. A simple portrait is actually the one that transcends the ages.”
Looking to the past has taught Benitez a lot in his work. He draws his inspiration from his family lineage. His father is a Spanish immigrant and his grandmother is a Native American. Benitez grew up going to school on a Native American reservation in New Mexico, caught between his father’s old world education and his grandmother’s relationship with nature.
“My dad was from the old world and he had all that kind of baggage. I guess in a way he wanted me to be kind of a torchbearer for the future. And so when he saw that I was really going into art, he encouraged that interest. Of course, I was just wanting to penetrate into the depths of the mindset of people who live in the past. And, my grandmother had a profound respect for nature and humanity living in harmony and with respect towards nature. And she always told me about that as a child. So, I wanted to bring that into some of the work, just that sense of returning to harmony, but in a new generation.”
His family’s influence is most prevalent in his Inheritors of the Earth series. The collection at Maestri has a few of them, including the works “Princess of Vast Forests,” “Queen of Melting Icebergs,” and “Cities Floating in My Mind.” In the series, Benitez renders a vivid portrait of a woman in a classically-inspired landscape, but when you take a closer look at the paintings, you discover there is a climate crisis behind them. Benitez’s work asks you to look again and again. In its vividness, the portraits tell a subtle but powerful story. The narrative in each piece has an urgency, but also an irreverence. They evoke a smile and curiosity. How have our decisions in the past created what we’re experiencing today? And how do we go forward from here?
In addition to his rich genealogy, Benitez draws inspiration from an ancient series of portraits known as the Fayum Portraits. These portraits ignited not only his use of encaustics, but also a deeper exploration of human psychology through portraiture. He said, “I saw these portraits and I found that they were just absolutely mesmerizing. They had this immediacy of the gaze that basically transcended nearly 2000 years. And so I felt that I was in direct dialogue with the person that lived 2000 years ago. I mean, they're kind of like selfies from 2000 years ago. They have that same immediacy to them. They're very spontaneous portraits of people, and they have a vividness that is haunting.”
This inspiration has served him well. He’s mastered the technique of encaustic, but more than that, he’s taken that feeling of immediacy and created a lush narrative. Benitez’ portraits are striking. All of the subjects are women, each with a gaze that invites imagination and conversation. There is an aliveness to the faces that begs for inquiry, and his masterful use of light and shadow draw your eyes to the the mysterious stories the women hold. In this portion of the Visages collection, I was particularly moved by the paintings “My Diaphanous Musings,” “Micaela,” and “La Cantatrice.”
Going forward, Benitez plans to continue his work in portraiture, experimenting with size and materials. An active teacher, he’s slated for a guest teaching event at Harvard University in 2022, and he looks forward to returning to Europe when the pandemic restrictions begin to lift. As we concluded our rich conversation, Benitez told me, “I wanted [the paintings] to be a reflection on the human spirit and the psychology of these people who are individuals who actually exist today and who are growing into the future. When you look at portraits, you see there’s a continuum. There’s always been a need for us to represent ourselves.”
Visages: Recent Portraits by Francisco Benitez is on exhibit at Maestri Gallery through April 30, 2021. For specific hours and special late night events, please visit Maestri Gallery at www.maestrigallery.com, or on Instagram.
Delve into Francisco Benitez’s work at www.franciscobenitez.com.