Billy Al Bengston: Sorta Memorial


Various Small Fires Los Angeles will host a “sorta” memorial and exhibition of works by Billy Al Bengston (b. 1934 – d. 2022) opening July 1, 2023. Featuring an abundant feast of Bengston’s circa 1980’s Kahuna and Pa’ Pepa watercolor collages and paintings surrounding the artist’s 1971 installation Lumberjack Luncheon, this “sorta” memorial is an exhibition of works spanning the 1970’s, 80’s, and 90’s and ode to the artist’s generous, joy-filled, and irreverent approach to life and art.


In 1971, LA Times food writer Rose Dosti approached Bengston for a story about young, local celebrities and artists who enjoyed cooking. Bengston found the proposition somewhat dull but was not eager to turn down the chance to have a little fun. He presented Dosti and notably cantankerous photographer, Mary Frampton, with a pine-sap perfumed lunch menu suited more to termites than human tastes. Hammered together in a very short time, Lumberjack Luncheon includes grainy delights like plank steak, mixed dust soup, standing log roast with aspen chips, and a bottle of retsina to wash it all down. Frampton was unamused and refused to photograph the work, leading to a lively verbal showdown with Bengston on the subject of professional integrity; Dosti was delighted, describing the lunch as “absolutely divine… not only a sculpture in its own right but an artistic performance, in costume and everything.”[1] The work went on to be included in exhibitions at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, the MoCA Annex at the Pacific Design Center, and most recently in 2009 at the Samuel Freeman Gallery. When not on offer to select guests in an exhibition context, the luncheon is semi-permanently installed in Bengston’s home and studio in Venice, CA.


A selection from Bengston’s circa 1980’s Kahuna and Pa’Pepa works surround the welcoming and fragrant table. In 1979, Bengston purchased a studio in Oahu, Honolulu and began to split time between his Venice Beach studio and “Hono.” The Kahunas and Pa’Pepas reflect Bengston’s return to a more-handmade aesthetic – these fanciful paper collages are made from water-colored paper, cut, and then re-assembled into compositions resembling masks, figures, and platters of fish and sashimi. The Kahunas, which Bengston began making after he started spending substantial time in Honolulu, reflect the artist’s fondness for Hawaiian culture and landscape. While usually translated as something akin to “head honcho,” in Hawaiian Kahuna means “priest, sorcerer, magician, wizard, minister, or expert in any profession.” Bengston’s Kahunas err on the side of sorcerer, magician, wizard, or artist--exuberant, wily, and psychedelic. The Pa’Pepa collages use similar materials to the Kahunas, but rather than these trickster spiritual guides, each collage shows a platter of fish, sushi, or sashimi and often has three-dimensional elements to the composition.


In our smaller gallery, Bengston’s Lost at Sea paintings bring a quiet moment of meditation to this raucous dinner party. Sensitively colored, with thin layers of paint to capture the subtleties of sky and water, these paintings of the horizon line refer to a morning fishing excursion that turned into a 12-hour adventure in the Sea of Cortez in 1996 when Bengston’s friend shot-gunned the new boat out into the water with such gusto that the gas tank ran dry. As they floated, untethered from certainty about their location or control over their locomotion, Bengston’s pals became frazzled and anxious. Meanwhile, Bengston spent his time lost at sea, lost in the horizon, remarking to the group, "Don’t worry. The worst thing that can happen is we can die.”


The artist’s cheeky spirit lives on in this exhibition of works that have been largely unexhibited for decades.  Humorous and playful, the presentation is an undeniably fitting homage.



Billy Al Bengston (b. 1934, Dodge City, Kansas, d. 2022, Venice Beach) is probably best known for his inventive combination of the aesthetics of California “Kustom Kar” and “Pistonhead” culture with more psychedelic and spiritual motifs like mandalas and iris flowers as well as his studied eye for color and abstraction. Bengston moved to Los Angeles with his family in 1948 and went on to study painting under Richard Diebenkorn at the California College of Arts, Oakland, CA. A central figure in Los Angeles Art in the 1960’s, Bengston began showing with the legendary Ferus gallery in 1957 and exhibited his work there until the gallery closed in 1966. Bengston has had major solo presentations at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the San Francisco Museum of Art; the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, Texas; and and a three-person retrospective with Ed Ruscha and Ed Moses at the New Britain Museum of American Art, Connecticut. His work is included in a number of important permanent collections including the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Chicago Art Institute, Illinois; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Bengston is represented by Various Small Fires, Los Angeles / Dallas / Seoul.