Sunday, 23 September 2007



(First published 18th April 2007)

Steve DiBenedetto’s work draws steady if qualified approval; tends to be taken as wayward imagery tormenting and provoking lavish painting, or lavish painting triumphing over wayward imagery, assimilating the challenge. Either way, imagery tends to be taken as largely an assault on taste, an invitation to redemption through vigorous facture, rich colour and frantic composition. DiBenedetto is thus seen as a bit of a rebel, making good paintings from bad sources, pursuing abstraction to unlikely, perhaps unwelcome fringes, in this respect not unlike Late Guston.

But is it enough to explain DiBenedetto’s content merely in terms of provocation or disapproval? Other images from science or horror fiction, psychedelia, therapy or tattoos might do just as well, if not better. Text, in this context, is surprisingly absent. Then again some of DiBenedetto’s depicted architecture and painting technique has respectable pedigree, while the difference between flying saucers, coloured disks or ellipses is not always clear cut. This post looks a little closer at DiBenedetto’s iconography.

DiBenedetto began with abstraction. In the late 80s - early 90s works favour layering; identify a picture plane or pattern through occlusion and juxtaposition by another. Following works offer a wider range of techniques, essentially pursue a busy eclecticism (see also Post 10). By the late 90s however DiBenedetto switches to more concrete depth and introduces grand interiors and monstrous figures reminiscent of Max Ernst. This shift is puzzling and is shortly followed by the introduction of flying saucers, strange web-like emanations or spirals, fans of moiré pattern, entangled octopi and hovering helicopters, in a looser, more expressionist style. Initially, one assumes they stand for creeping menace pitted against police or military surveillance in some abstract realm, but in subsequent works, as octopus and helicopter recur and contest, their roles take on a more subtle and surprisingly pictorial concern.

The octopus entwines itself with the architecture, with various frameworks and sometimes radar dishes, with the planes that establish depth and volume to the picture. The helicopter, by contrast, is firstly airborne, generates a circular plane by its rotors and an alternating pattern, similar to the friction between layers in earlier abstraction. The octopus is animate and grasping, overruns and obscures fixtures, the helicopter is mechanical, free standing, generates a compelling vortex, offers escape or openings against the clinging, cramping octopus. Yet the octopus destroys the helicopter in some pictures, the helicopter is fatally ensnared in a radar dish or web-like structures in others, while similar disks and frameworks are smoothly assimilated to tentacles elsewhere.

What is abstracted in these encounters is something like a bodily presence. It inhabits the picture, its numerous sensors snaking out, filling the space, foiling more remote construction, further depiction and abstraction. Against this, soar its more inspired products, aloof and aloft. Animal versus mineral, body versus mind, volume versus plane, (can female versus male be added? perhaps not) the polarities are familiar, formidable, reference to one; some or all by octopus and helicopter is not. Each gains by the effort, as do our powers of interpretation, in a small way. The pictures are too consistent to be just whimsy, support a more concerted reading. Abstraction here takes on a literally transcendent, spiritual dimension, while the opposing material world is stressed in lavish facture and lurid colour. The pictures are clogged with an excess of painterly display, and like the creeping tentacles, they suffocate depth, dissipate and devalue pattern and planes. Abstraction here drowns in a kind of painterly decadence, a sensuous swamp that is more than just a transgression of taste, less than a triumph of painting.

DiBenedetto’s allegories do not quite lift expressionism by octopi and helicopters, or vice versa, and cannot always accommodate depth and detail with broad handling, indeed might usefully sacrifice more of the former to the latter rather than oscillate between them, at times. But as allegories, the work is interesting for the way it rejects a more diagrammatic approach (see also Post 2) opts instead for a perspective built from planes and volumes of garish pattern, that never quite surrender to a comfortable location. It is hard to see the style broadening with other imagery, greater extravagance seems a more likely prospect, but hard also not to see this as despair.

No comments: