Maiken Bent can hardly be said to be a painter. However, it's not farfetched to consider her ancestors painters. Therefore, to talk about Bent's work, we might start out talking about something completely different.
Abstract painting is often said to have been invented in the 1910s by many painters simultaneously. Though early abstract painters such as Kupka, Kandinsky and Malevich had different agendas, one thing seemed to unite their various practices. As the philosopher Othega y Gasset put it in a seminal essay in 1925, abstract art eliminates - or better, expels - “the human element.” Abstraction in the first half of the 20th century was thus synonymous with something missing. That something was figuration and, more than anything else, the human figure.
The expelled human figure nevertheless kept haunting abstract art. Though, for instance, another abstract artist, Mondrian, became more and more stylistically austere, his friends kept mocking him, pointing out that figuration was still visible in his works. As if a result of the always approximate character of abstract painting, figuration became a prime element in a new wave of abstract art in the 40s and 50s. COBRA was as much about abstraction as it was about the human face and body breaking through abstraction, resurfacing in non-figurative space, probably as an echo of the wartime battle between the inhumane and the human.
As said, Bent is not a painter, neither working with canvas nor paint. However, she is indebted to the aforementioned tradition of abstract painting. The patterns she creates out of sewing together bits of leather recall both the dynamic geometrical abstraction of Kandinsky and COBRA's lurking figuration. But the “human element” in her work regurgitates in the main elsewhere. The human figure which was expelled by abstract art returns in Bent's work in the shape of the viewer. In Bent's work, the human figure is both expelled and called upon. On one hand, the stark color surfaces seem to address themselves to the eye and thus ask the viewer to behold the art object at a distance. On the other hand, the tactile texture and objecthood of her work speaks to the sense of touch, and accordingly invites the viewer to interfere with the object.
Characteristic of Bent's work is its combination of retinal abstraction and tactile 'toolishness'. This blend might seem new, however abstraction is not foreign to tools. On the contrary, tools seem to have been the harbingers of abstraction, but a sort of abstraction which is foreign to modernist abstraction, namely decoration - a genre Kandinsky and Mondrian even considered the enemy of art.
Ancient hunters decorated their knifes, bows and harpoons. The ornaments on such weapons might have been vegetal, but, for the most part, were not representative in the manner of cave paintings. Rather they were thought of as celebrations of the tools upon which human survival depended. These ornaments did not depict things, they were part of the things. Put in another way, these ornaments did not install a distance between humans and object. This is rather the case in Bent's use of abstraction. Though the abstraction, which accompanies her objects, might recall primitive or archaic culture her style is closer to modernist abstraction than ornamental decoration.
The way we design our tools today reveals that tools no longer hold the same promise as before. While tools were once developed as necessary for survival, today they simply optimize our lives. As such, tools are bound up with the promise of pleasure like luxury goods. Kitchen utensils are the hallmark of this development.
The changed status of the tool today is reflected in the way old instruments are used for new purposes. Borrowing an example from Bent, many sex toys are entirely or partly recycled agricultural tools, instruments of torture or even weapons. Such transformation is peculiar, since this transformation is only titillating if it is never complete. In the sex toy the instrument's new function is a function of its old function, even if this seems a contradiction in terms. Bent's work might as such recall that of a sex toy - its function but also its effect on the consumer. And Bent is especially interested in two emotions that also seem contradictory: “Pain and pleasure release the same endorphins in the brain, which is to say that opposites have the same output.” However, while a sex toy is a titillating tool because it can be used as a sex toy, the toolishness of Bent's work is titillating because her work cannot really be used as a tool, whatsoever. Rather her art works speak to a desire in the viewer, which is uncertain and knows no release, thereby provoking our imagination to spin at a higher pace. This is what Bent's use of a modernist abstract language underscores - a language that denies any reference to the world while at the same time hinting at its various manifestations.
In Edgar Allan Poe's horror story The Pit & The Pendulum a hostage is caught in a cellar. Bound to and stretched out on a table, a sharp edged pendulum is swinging back and forth in a descent, for each sway approaching his chest. For a while, his way of keeping death and the torment of the senses at bay is by shifting his focus from the immediate physical danger of the blade towards its geometrical form and straight trajectory. This cerebral act described as an act of “abstraction” does not solve his problem, but it releases a pleasure, which distracts him from his pain and the danger he is in. A similar theme can be found in many of Bent's works. By focusing on the artist's abstract geometrical patterns, the viewer transcends a glittering world of things, which appeals to fleeting sentiments of pleasure and pain. Her work attracts the viewer like so many other design objects while simultaneously pointing to a point beyond in the very midst of a world stuffed with objects. In her work there is an object inside of which there is no object. Her exhibition Every Room has a Smell from 2009 could serve as an illustration of this. With its big gym and built-in storage room, it was a retreat for the one who cannot get out, but does not feel like participating either. In Maiken Bent's work, there is a sensuous play of color and form so tightly woven and composed that it transcends the bare play of senses.