Steve DiBenedetto has not been sitting still. I cannot imagine that he ever does. The fourteen modestly scaled paintings in his current exhibition, Steve DiBenedetto: Pre-Linguistic Granola, at Half Gallery (April 12 – May 14, 2016) build upon the breakthroughs of his last New York show, Mile High Psychiatry, at Derek Eller (March 20 – April 18, 2015), just a year ago. In that show DiBenedetto jettisoned his longtime signature motifs: octopi, helicopters, Ferris wheels and UFOs – radial forms extending from a central axis and pushing against the confinement of the painting’s edges – for elements that are just as bold and organic, but more abstract and variegated.
It is not hard to understand why DiBenedetto sustained these coiling motifs for as long as he had. They registered the daily disarray undermining Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, that is to say, the belief that the human body is a divine creation and therefore a perfect instrument for measurement.
By letting go of these motifs, the artist moved on to court chaos and the further breakdown of an already precarious idea of order, all while acknowledging what I think of as his core belief. As he wondered aloud to David Humphrey (BOMB, Spring 2008):
How can the format be stretched and still aesthetically be painting. To me it’s always been most interesting to approach painting from a messy, reckless, stressed-out place.
As I wrote in my review of his exhibition at Derek Eller, DiBenedetto has become increasingly “more open to impulse and spontaneity.” This openness – stretched to the point of exhilaration and surprise – is even more evident in his recent work, all of which he finished within the last year. At the same time, he reveals how much he loves paint in its innumerable guises – from gooey materiality to scarred, scratched and scraped skin, to diluted washes – and the different instruments he uses to get it on to the surface of the canvas. When it comes to putting paint on a surface, DiBenedetto will do everything he can, except destroy the canvas, because that would be akin to letting the air out the balloon. This is just one of the tensions enlivening the recent paintings.
At one point, while looking at “Stone Wash Freezer Burn” (2016), I imagined the artist using a straightedge razor to lay the paint down, methodically working it back and forth over the surface as he tries to smooth out the layers of colored paste, one atop another. When it comes to DiBenedetto’s painting, looking is that visceral. No one else that I can think of comes close. I kept getting closer to the painting, like a doctor or jeweler, as I pored over its irregular, scarred surface, noticing each of the different material manifestations of paint that the artist brought together in a single work. It was not unlike hallucinating, of watching something seemingly solid slowly pull apart and reconfigure.
It should also be said that “Stone Wash Freezer Burn,” with its merging of viscous paint and a clearly demarcated angular shape, is the least dissonant composition in the show. “Stone Wash Freezer Burn” is – to use a musical term – a melodic painting where everything fits tightly together, endowing the image with a sense of order. At the same time, the scraped surface, the ridges of scarred paint, imbue the compositions central crystal-like form with a feeling of melancholy, as it registers time’s corrosive power.
In “Quantum Goat” (2015-2016) – aren’t DiBenedetto’s titles great? – the evidence suggests that he arrived at a head-like form in profile, rising from the painting’s bottom edge, and taking up nearly the entire surface, through the manipulation of the paint layers. Had the artist stopped there, he would have been left with a fusion of image and scarred surface of the same order as “Stone Wash Freezer Burn.” Instead, he covered the painting with a field of orange, white, and yellow-green dots, which seem to have been squeezed directly from the paint tube, resulting in a surface covered with pustule-like outbursts. Finally, he applied a thin layer of blue, mostly in the areas surrounding the head-like form.
On a formal level, “Quantum Goat” is an argument between a figure-ground configuration and an all-over field of colored dots, as well as a melding together of the two into a buzz at once optical and visceral. But “Quantum Goat” is much more than that. There is the dialogue between the slowly painted figural form and the abstraction of the quickly applied dots, between deliberation and impulsiveness. Is the form being attacked by a swarm of midges in the guise of paint? Or are they eruptions – signs of internal disorder – bursting from the painting’s surface? If the figurative form and the all-over field feel like historical choices, DiBenedetto’s fusion of them feels fresh and unexpected, even startling.
In “Progressive Residue” (2015-2016) – the title seems to be a definition of painting and its process –viewers might end up marveling at all the different ways the artist has applied and manipulated paint. They might find themselves absorbed by how intuitively the dissonant parts seem to fit together when, by all rights, they shouldn’t. For all of the variety in painting tools and the often conflicting painterly vocabularies, from sophisticated to blunt and flatfooted, the paintings don’t feel collaged or arbitrary. Nor do they feel planned or the outcome of a stylistic or conceptual strategy. Rather, they feel discovered. The deliberated, internally rhythmic forms and the impulsive overlay of dissonant dots, squiggles, and scratches – the covering over and digging back into the work – become something new, more than the sum of their parts.
Instead of stopping where he might have once before, or where we might expect him to consider a work finished, DiBenedetto keeps finding ways to go on and, in a sense, induce upheavals in what he has already done, make something unexpected emerge. Right now, he’s making the best work of his career, which started in 1987, while touching upon subjects of concern to us all: destruction, ecology, the evolution/devolution of the species, the truth of science fiction, the transformation of the human body. That he can do so without becoming didactic is just another one of the things that make this show such a mind-and-eye boggling delight.
Steve DiBenedetto: Pre-Linguistic Granola continues at Half Gallery (43 East 78th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through May 14.