In Nathan Clark Bentley’s painting “All I Ever Wanted,” a lustful tangle of arms and legs, as well as a flash of a naked buttock, draped luridly over a bleacher bench. Beer cans, a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee cup and a hastily-removed sock are strewn nearby.
It is but one “scene,” partly imagined, partly real, from Bentley’s own youth — a time, if the paintings are to be believed, defined by getting tanked, hooking up in cars, and scarfing down junk food — activities that many of us may sheepishly recall from our own angst-ridden, hormone-fueled teenage years.
“The figures, the places are all more or less real,” says Bentley. “I'm digging into my memory and trying to kind of recreate these memories. And they're not always to a T. I think that's part of the point.”
Bentley’s paintings — comic, surreal, sardonic, often tinged with regret-- will be on view beginning June 26 in the exhibit “Waiting for the Night” at Fitchburg Art Museum. The show, whose title is taken from the moody Depeche Mode song of same title, delves into what it means to be young and foolish, growing up in a hypersexualized environment in which men are encouraged to dominate and objectify women and in which teens of both sexes grapple with the trappings of a degraded throwaway consumer culture marked by fast food and designer labels.
“A big part of the paintings is, like, what role do we play? What role do I play?” says Bentley, who, now 30, lives and works in Manchester, New Hampshire. “I want them to be relatable. They're, for the most part based, on very specific life experiences, but also in that same way, they're also very relatable to what many people may have experienced.”
In Bentley’s painting “Heaven Knows We’ll Soon Be Dust” (which also happens to be a phrase from a song by The Smiths, although Bentley says he had in mind the Bruce Springsteen song “Jungleland”), we see a woman whose head remains out of the frame, semi-nude, panties draped around her legs, sitting atop a car’s hood. She’s tattooed and holds a Rolling Rock beer. Her bra and jeans have been tossed hurriedly aside. A pair of male arms reach forward to touch her but another arm and hand in the frame suggest a sequence view in which we have caught the couple in time-lapse action. In another painting, “Some Lives You Live,” a semi-nude couple casually drapes their legs over a pair of lawn chairs. The boy’s taped hands refer to a drinking game known as “Edward 40 Hands” in which a player’s hands are taped to 40-ounce malt beers until finished. We can see the Calvin Klein logo of her underwear, as well as her Playboy bunny tattoo.
He says the kids in his paintings are depicted very much in the spirit of the characters that Springsteen sings about. “We're in some ways fond of them, or nostalgic for what they stand for, while at the same time they're very much a critique.”
Bentley’s figures are generally distorted, hanging in the balance between realism and a cartoon lampoon. His spaces are disjointed and claustrophobic. The viewer takes on the role of voyeur, privy to illicit acts that, as the title of the show suggests, usually happen after dark. Though the paintings might make you laugh, text clues that appear as graffiti or tattoos in each scene, hint at something a little darker, including a sense of mortality and passing time.
“He’s developed this personal style that merges realism with surrealism that is also influenced by comics and illustrations, and he’s able to create these compelling dream-like scenes that are also drenched with memory,” says Fitchburg Art Museum director Nick Capasso.
Capasso describes the work as “both attractive and repulsive at the same time,” comparing it to the work of David Salle because of its layered imagery and ambiguous narrative. “The paintings are emotionally complex, but they are also emotionally honest.”
Bentley was the first prize winner of FAM’s 84th Regional Exhibition of Art & Craft in 2019. As the winner, he was entitled to a solo show at the museum, which was supposed to have happened in 2020. The pandemic, of course, changed all that. Postponement, however, may have worked to Bentley’s advantage. The imposed isolation of quarantine allowed the artist to reflect on the beer-soaked nights of his youth. In the space of a year and a half, he created a whole new body of work distinct from the painting that won him the solo show to begin with. His earlier work was more abstract, more symbolic, and had a collage-like feel. This new body of work, filled with images and symbols of American youth culture, referencing music, consumer products and deconstructing stereotypical gender roles, has morphed into fully developed narratives that offer a wry cultural critique.
“One of the things I’m trying to examine is the role of being a male today,” says Bentley, who got his BFA from MassArt in 2013 and whose day job is working in his family’s wholesale lumber trading business. “So much has come to light with the #MeToo movement and the way we think about the way we interact with each other. That's something I think a lot about… just the way we are as kids and the things that we do.”
His work, in short, is about kids doing stuff they maybe shouldn’t be doing.But it’s more than just that. He says he wants his paintings “to be something you can kind of smirk at and like maybe laugh. I also want to say something that's of meaning, that has some value, whether it's a critique or simply a feeling that you feel looking at them… if you can think there's something important being said, that's kind of what I'm hoping to do.”
“Nathan Clark Bentley: Waiting for the Night” is on view at Fitchburg Art Museum June 26-Sept. 5.