A Complex Composition, Bennett and Phillips’s new installation ‘Spitting Distance’ at Napoleon gallery
Wit visits Napoleon to experience the new exhibition, "Spitting Distance," by Keenan Bennett and Heather Raquel Phillips. Catch the show this weekend before it closes on Sunday, October 27, 2019. Napoleon gallery is located in the Chinatown section of Philadelphia at 319 N. 11th Street, 2nd floor.

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Installation view, Spitting Distance by Heather Raquel Phillips and Keenan Bennet, at Napoleon gallery. Photo courtesy Wit López.
Installation view, Spitting Distance by Heather Raquel Phillips and Keenan Bennet, at Napoleon gallery. Photo courtesy Wit López.

When I heard that a show was opening at Napoleon gallery featuring the work of Keenan Bennett and Heather Raquel Phillips, I could hardly contain my joy. They’re both artists whose work I’ve enjoyed encountering in other spaces and I have worked with each of them in different capacities in the past, and their thought processes never cease to amaze and amuse me. Before visiting Napoleon, I thought of past works of each artist and envisioned a display that would make me chuckle, while containing elements that would make me second guess my feelings about what I think I’m experiencing. I wondered if I would ask myself, “Is this what I think it is?”

The exhibition, entitled Spitting Distance, did not disappoint. It met and exceeded my expectations. As I walked up the hallway toward the gallery door, the first thing I noticed was the black curtain completely cloaking the dark gray door. I gently pulled the curtain aside to enter and saw a series of curtains and a temporary wall made of plywood about 6 feet in front of me. The plywood has three visible holes from the front: a small one at the eye level of some; a much larger, foam-lined hole that I could only see into when I was on my knees; and a third hole that seemed to be stuffed with toilet paper. Behind the black curtains to the right was a small space, large enough for one person to stand and peer into the fourth, hidden hole.

Installation view, Spitting Distance by Heather Raquel Phillips and Keenan Bennet, at Napoleon gallery. Photo courtesy Wit López.
Installation view, Spitting Distance by Heather Raquel Phillips and Keenan Bennet, at Napoleon gallery. Photo courtesy Wit López.

In addition to the textile and wood partition, my ears were met with a slightly disorienting and discordant soundscape; at one point, it sounded like Bossa Nova playing over pinball machine music, and at another point, running water. Small parallelograms of light danced around the room, as a hidden light source reflected off of a pole covered in tiny mirrors in the mylar-lined realm beyond the partition. The videos–meant to be viewed through the holes–included new short works by Bennett and Phillips with titles like Flashdancers, Hay, Cheetahs, and Ass Fountain. As I hoped for, the videos feature people as absurd caricatures of themselves or characters they have invented, which is something that I love about the work of both artists.

“Keenan and I have worked together since our first piece together in grad school in 2015,” Phillips shares with me, as she pets her two cute Bichon Frise, Sue and Bentley, in the hallway outside of Napoleon’s gallery. “There’s a lot of interesting parallels that exist between our work, so we have a file of things that we want to work on together.”

Installation view, Spitting Distance by Heather Raquel Phillips and Keenan Bennet, at Napoleon gallery. Photo courtesy Wit López.
Installation view, Spitting Distance by Heather Raquel Phillips and Keenan Bennet, at Napoleon gallery. Photo courtesy Wit López.

I told her that when I first walked into the gallery, I felt like a kid again, approaching the holes in the plywood with the same curiosity I had as a small child looking through the cracks in wood to watch earthmovers on construction sites. As I watched the content of the videos and noticed that the atmosphere around me was poorly lit and that the corner to the left of the entryway held a large stack of neatly-folded, white hand towels, that feeling of child-like delight shifted to one of a mature, consenting voyeur. I asked Phillips what I was supposed to feel in the space.

“I really wanted to transform the Napoleon space into something other than a white box. We thought of all the ways folks could look into the space, like, a gloryhole, or a peeping tom hole, or a peep show, but we didn’t want to give folks too much space to see in,” she explained. “Like the space for an intimate exchange between strangers in a public/private space. You’re close, but you aren’t close.”

Installation view, Spitting Distance by Heather Raquel Phillips and Keenan Bennet, at Napoleon gallery. Photo courtesy Wit López.
Installation view, Spitting Distance by Heather Raquel Phillips and Keenan Bennet, at Napoleon gallery. Photo courtesy Wit López.

As she turned off the music and the videos, and we both prepared to head back into the rain, Phillips stated, “We thought about experiences of our own and living in a space of deviance. Personal truths, things that can be liberating. It’s a complex composition, I think.”

I enjoyed the visual, audio, and tactile experiences I had as I explored Spitting Distance. Before I left, Phillips offered me a small manila envelope which she described as containing “an essay.” After I left, I stopped to read it, and felt that disoriented feeling again and had to laugh. The typed, sexual excerpts on the page weren’t linear, but were collaged in different directions. One passage, directly in the center of the page, was enclosed in a rectangle with the letters printed backwards. Such a small detail, but a fitting keepsake of the immersive installation, acting as a callback to the videos, the intent of the artists, and the space itself. A complex composition, indeed.

“Spitting Distance” by Heather Raquel Phillips and Keenan Bennet at Napoleon Gallery, 319 N. 11th Street, 2nd floor, until October 27th, 2019

Tags

Heather Raquel Phillips, installation, Keenan Bennett, napoleon gallery, sculpture, Spitting Distance, video, Wit Lopez

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