Although Penelope Cruz does play a small role, and the ghost of Walter Benjamin will naturally be listed in the credits, this remake is neither a cheery Hollywood version nor a straight-up Pictures Generation critique. The plotline here is thankfully more intricate than that.
Sure, the boho couple is sauntering arm-in-arm, and the young girl is reading in bed, but their recognizable poses aren’t meant to exploit or interrogate our emotions so much as momentarily test them: Can we still have feelings for such sentimental scenes?
Looking a lot like the freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and his snuggling paramour, our carefree lovers—Cruise & Cruz—were actually lifted from Vanilla Sky (itself a remake of Abre Los Ojos, also starring Ms. Cruz). Maybe the director did take inspiration from the iconic album cover, but it’s hard to be sure, since even the Dylan photo nowadays seems slightly J. Crew. Remade as Lovers in the Snow, the well-worn image can slowly sit back, allowing the sensation of romantic refuge to arrive directly, almost materially, from the contrast between the protagonists (rendered flatly, in a cranberry hue) and their setting (a whirl of neutral-colored brushstrokes). As you faintly recognize the VW bus in the background flurry, which you swear you remember from your vinyl collection, you start to believe you’ve just witnessed the successful excavation of a major 20th-century cliché.
When Kristopher Benedict goes after a more Victorian image—daringly turning Willard Leroy Metcalf’s The Convalescent into Sick Day—you start to sense what he’s doing. By stripping away the period details and perfecting that look in her eyes, he’s chasing down a feeling, one hundred years later.
These remakes reverse the usual logic of reproduction, returning the mechanics to the hand, which is able to register subtleties and contradictions that may not occur in the original. The results aren’t deadpan enlargements or diligent copies, but candidly idiosyncratic revisions. They are the opposite of multiples.
In fact, when the images are internet-sourced, the painted versions can give them a body for the first time. In Mansion—which depicts Nick Cage’s former residence in Las Vegas—a tiny jpeg morphs decisively into a canvas taller than its viewers. Although Google image will still have the house under his name, the painting suggests the real story: the bank eventually forced the actor from his mocked-up Mediterranean villa. Even surrounded by palm fronds, the gigantic abode looks uneasy, greenish, and fragmented. Much like the house, the painting becomes an outsized, repossessed tribute to the vulnerabilities of physical existence.
Fittingly, an alchemically-themed picture is also given a radically new life as Hermit Painting: a black-and-white print from the 1850s is transformed into a full-color painting many times its size. The image (itself derived from a 17th-century precursor) features the hermit following a woman who seems to be lifting a star-shaped lantern. Is he trailed by his younger self? The remake doesn’t provide conclusive details, as its color is laid out in broad patches that overwhelm everything, including the original’s ornate elliptical frame. The varied hues cut freely across the forms, recalling a screen print or—perhaps less anachronistically—some kind of period embroidery. Without settling in any one mood or period, the remake harmonizes strangely across time.
Clouds With Birds uses everyday phenomena to evoke everyday anxiety: there is a significant proportion of blue in the picture, and the formation isn’t ominous, but the clouds aren’t puffy white either, and they are covered in tiny two-brushstroke birds. The clouds are hard to place, but you keep guessing—Constable? Steiglitz? Tiepolo?—since you know this is a remake. The birds provoke a more familiar uneasiness, and it isn’t long before you recognize that flock. It’s as if one part of your mind is projecting a normal, almost happy day, and the other part is projecting …The Birds. Many will know the feeling.
In all these pictures, the underlying premise is both practical and vertiginously open ended: since images are now relentless in their ubiquity, today’s painter may be tasked simply with taking ones that already exist and remaking them in paint. The tactic itself isn’t new or uncommon, but emphasizing it shifts the focus to the transformations that occur through painting. With surfaces that are variously reworked and thick, or scumbled and dusted with pigment, or smooth and thin to the point of showing bare canvas, none of these paintings are shy about their transformations, and that is part of their appeal. In a body of work that stretches uninterruptedly from the figurative to the abstract, some of Benedict’s remakes turn entirely to paint, and it is clear that detours and second thoughts play a big role throughout.
This attitude comes as a relief. Instead of looking for yet another new image, we are able to slow down and find invention in the particular characteristics of each work. Some of the themes repeat, at different scales, within the show. We end up making and remaking meaning as our feelings change and we notice new relationships. Eventually, we notice one more thing: the idea of a remake is itself being subtly and continuously remade.