Zak Benjamin painted Red Chair in 1998. Although I cannot call myself in any way qualified to be an Art critic, I would nonetheless like to share some personal views about this painting, which I believe to be one of his most mature works.
Upon seeing it for the first time, I experienced a sense of wonder at the effortless way in which he managed to weave together so many disparate worlds. We who live in South Africa are apt to experience the tension between these different worlds: African and European, comfortable and difficult, materialistic and spiritual, urban and rural. When I began living with the painting, I started to sense that I was on a journey. The painting became both the journey itself and a metaphor for the journey which I, as a South African, am called to undertake.
In the beginning, I thought about the great distance separating the two chairs. The easy chair is set indoors in the foreground, and the hard seat is isolated in the background, at the top of a barren and bleak hill.It is a long way away indeed from safety sitting back and observing, surrounded by one's material comforts, to the spiritual hot-seat where one is exposed and vulnerable. Yet perhaps life "down here" is not quite so complete? The paintbrush in the center foreground hints at changes to be made to "my" painting (displayed on the easel at the left). And the mystical red chair is not altogether out in the open - stout pales enclose it.
Apart from the distance of the journey the viewer is invited to make, there is the journey itself. It takes one along green hills filled with huts. Some are solid, others are still open and in the first stages of being built. Do the huts offer the observer safe resting-places, stops along the route? Perhaps they refer to matters which need attention before taking ones place upon the mystical chair. The incomplete huts remind me that in this life one must bear the tension of leaving some issues unresolved, unfinished. They, too, are parts of the human landscape.
The strongest impression left behind by Red Chair is the challenge of choices. You need to choose between two chairs. Making a choice means abandoning one of the two. A rich landscape separates the two, but you can ignore it. After all, these two chairs do not really confront one another. They belong to separate realities.
To me, Zak's genius lies in his ability to create a picture which looks soothing and pleasant, yet manages to confront me with all my own untravelled paths. It makes me think about the obstacles I myself build along the journey of self-discovery. I am challenged to connect my different worlds and to become more whole.