Steve DiBenedetto, Vortex, 2002, colored pencil on paper, 22 1/2 × 30 1/8”. All images courtesy of the artist and Derek Eller Gallery.
At that point one arrives in a place that defies description, a space that has a feeling of being underground, or somehow insulated and domed. In Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, such a place is called the “merry go raum,” from the German word raum, for “space.” The room is actually going around, and in that space one feels like a child, though one has come out somewhere in eternity.
—Terence McKenna, “Tryptamine Hallucinogens and Consciousness”
Steve DiBenedetto forces a lot of perspectives into his pictures. As he puts it, “I like to put in too many skies.” There are patches of sky, and you can see panoramas, cross sections, core samples, micros and macros, but you can’t read it all at the same time. This is not the systematized simultaneity of Cubism; this is a tortuous mindscape. You get sucked in, tangled and confused; you withdraw to get your bearings and then reenter the quagmire and beat a different path through DiBenedetto’s shit. (He mixes his paints almost to that dead brown-gray point that painting instructors warn students against. And often, next to one of these near-fecal passages, he’ll smear some out-of-the-tube primaries.) These worlds are made of circles, spirals and ellipses; they’re held together by webs, tendrils, scratches, and drips; and they’re packed uncomfortably into a rectangle.
The things—helicopters, octopuses, ferris wheels, merry-go-rounds—that churn these perspectives are also evocative as images. They summon from deep memory childhood’s fascinations and fears. They are like Apocalypse Now directed by Terence McKenna, orSomething Wicked This Way Comes by Jacques Cousteau. Kind of. Even though DiBenedetto has used this same set of images in almost every recent work, they never coalesce into easy narratives. They function a little like Guston’s cigarettes and shoe soles: they’re important, but one is only sure why while viewing the picture.
DiBenedetto works on multiple paintings over a number of months, or sometimes years. They get built up and wiped out. Every inch of the canvas gets stroked, diddled, and scraped. On a recent studio visit, I was surprised to see that the underpainting on some of these newer canvases was relatively serene and balanced. And in fact, along with turbulence, there is a lot of grace to be found within the finished paintings. His octopus’s tentacles, his arabesques and runes all share a sinuous, serpentine elegance.
Though very much of the same spirit, his recent drawings charm where the paintings challenge. They forgo the paintings’ creepy skin; instead the paper is covered with obsessive, clustered, flowing one-eighth-inch pencil strokes. The smaller scale and clarity of the drawings makes it easier to read things like an octopus’s body morphing into an inorganic chromium vortex, or the speed blur of a chopper blade generating intricate lattices with peepholes into different realities. The drawings would fit easily into the Prinzhorn Collection, but for their understated hipness and formal savvy. From them I understand what DiBenedetto means when he says he’s interested in making “cerebral folk art.”
When I first saw DiBenedetto’s paintings in the late ’80s, my immediate (and obvious) response was “They look like bad trips.” While the work remains undeniably psychedelic, drugs were never really the subject. I realize now that what DiBenedetto has always been interested in portraying is consciousness. He mingles images of the world with cellular and synaptic structures, making a kind of brain doily. Ultimately, the compelling discomfort that his work insists on is the confusion it creates between what is out there (the world) and what’s in here (me). It’s incredibly difficult to induce this sensation with art (of course, drugs do do it well), but DiBenedetto’s unsettling art succeeds.
Steve DiBenedetto, Charley Don’t Surf, 1999, oil on canvas, 24 × 16”.
Steve DiBenedetto, Greedy Hippy, 2000–01, oil on canvas, 60 × 48”.