Steve DiBenedetto Chaoticusby John Yau
David Nolan Gallery May 10 - June 21, 2008
Best known for his symbolic paintings—
encrusted surfaces jam-packed with
In his recent work, DiBenedetto adds to his symbolic vocabulary as he expands his material means to include gouache and watercolor applied to a plastic sheet. The change is interesting for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it goes against the grain of the artist’s temperament as expressed over the past decade, during which he built up his oil paintings and pencil drawings from an impressive array of marks. In the earlier work, everything felt as if it arrived slowly, bit by bit, like a mosaic. In the recent works on plastic, the fast-drying gouache and watercolor demand quick
Set against modulated cerulean or magenta skies, DiBenedetto’s multi-faceted, heat sensitive structures are either being attacked by an unseen force or imploding; this is a world in which people are absent, and everything is going haywire. The artist continues to embrace representation and abstraction, but, I think, is more successful here than previously in merging the two. An area of yellow tinged with red and orange can be read as an explosion, a burst of reflected light, and an abstract puddle of color. The faceted structures are the modernist grid in a state of entropy. The use of watercolor on a plastic surface endows the works with a glow that, despite the artist’s hothouse palette, can feel cold or scorching, otherworldly. The palette largely consists of primary and secondary colors––magenta, thalo and cyan blues, and metallic greens––that seem far removed from nature. Typically, a latticed, faceted structure occupies the majority of the picture plane. Sometimes the structure seems like an animated being, the morphing of a human into a cyborg (are they stand-ins for the mechanical hybrids we are well on the way to becoming?).
In the best works, the details vie for equal attention with the whole, and the transition from the smallest bit of information (a single reflective panel or a suction cup from an octopus’ tentacles) to the largest (a tall building or a primeval being) feels smooth if not also disturbing. In the juxtaposition of a large octopus against a multi-paneled tower, at once pristine and repellent, rising into the sky, it is with the creature that we feel the deeper connection. It’s as if we are stuck between two poles (which is the mind and which is the body?) with no clear choice at hand (Robert Frost’s well-known poem about this dilemma seems more quaint by the minute). Crisis, change, and destruction are at the core of DiBenedetto’s concerns, and, to his credit, he never permits them to descend into clichés. His viewpoints are deliberately distorted, offbeat and even grating. He tries to maintain the view of a witness, rather than a judge.
In 1914, Bruno Taut, who was a utopian with socialist leanings, completed his Glass Pavillion, which had a prismatic dome, for the Cologne Werkbund Exhibition. The central influence on Taut was the poet and author of fantastic literature, Paul Scheerbart, who wrote aphoristic poems about Taut’s building and believed the crystal was the perfect form. He also was one of the first to write poems based on sound and assumed he was in touch with life on distant planets. Scheerbart, whose writings on glass influenced Walter Benjamin (who cited him in his Arcades Project), is an occult thinker known only to a few. It seems to me that DiBenedetto, consciously nor not, comes out of this strain of hidden thinking, and that in his work he recognizes how far and fast we have been falling from our lofty goals. By registering every detail of our descent into the maelstrom of the present, which is our inhumanity, DiBenedetto has become a chronicler of our nightmares, and, perhaps more disturbing, our morbidly erotic fascination with them.