Steve DiBenedetto “Mile High Psychiatry”
By John Mitchell
April 17, 2015
Steve DiBenedetto’s current exhibition of fifteen paintings at Derek Eller Gallery in NYC titled “Mile High Psychiatry” is an uneven show in the best way. Not all of the paintings work equally well, but they’re all exciting to see. The smaller ones are less lived in. One of the small ones titled “We Blew It” seems like a Bill Jensen body snatcher and would probably not raise many eyebrows as an alien invader in a Bill Jensen retrospective. Of the five large paintings, the two that are less impactful are “Catholic Deli” (60x72x1.375”, oil on linen, 2012-15) and “Indications Are Such…” (77×80×1.5”, oil on linen, 2013-15). “Catholic Deli” lacks the feeling of evolution and discovery in the more successful paintings and “Indications…” seems too crowded and unresolved. The most thrilling paintings in the show are “Seven Grain Satan”, “I, Robot”, and “Reverse Epiphany”.
In 1891, Walter Sickert wrote:
“Jean Francois Millet was, with scarcely an exception, free from a preoccupation with the walls of an exhibition. The scale of his pictures and their key were dictated by the artistic requirements of the subject, and not by the necessities of allurements of what I may call for brevity, competitive painting.”
Sickert might have said the same thing about the work in Steve DiBenedetto’s “Mile High Psychiatry”. Steve DiBenedetto has been working on some of these paintings over the course of many years and it seems like he’s figuring them out as he makes them. The surprises he finds are surprises for viewers too. His approach to each painting is unpredictable. As a result of this risky way of working, sometimes the paintings turn into inanimate goo (Catholic Deli) and sometimes they just get tangled up and stuck (Indications…). It’s admirable to see someone who has been at it for as long as he has willing to leave such a big part of the equation up to chance.
In “Offers of Refusal” (24x18x.75”, oil on linen, 2015) there’s a torn hole in the painting. The edges of the tear are painted and enclose a small black space and some indistinguishable stuff underneath that is also splashed with paint. This micro moment has as much character as any in the entire show. It’s like discovering pirate treasure under your beach towel. Malcolm Morley is in here too. Malcolm seems like he might be one of Steve DiBenedetto’s art dad’s. In fact, Malcolm born in 1931 is old enough to be Steve DiBenedetto’s dad. Steve DiBenedetto was born the year Malcolm Morley moved to NYC from England. 1958 – the year Alec Guinness played the wily painter Gulley Jimson, starring the paintings of John Bratby in Ronald Neame’s film “The Horse’s Mouth”. The DNA of Malcolm Morley’s wrecked ships, exploding planes (as in airplanes and painted surface planes), exotic animals, luscious paint, vibrant color, and death-defying motocross riders jumping through torn canvas – all seem to be lurking just below the surface of Steve DiBenedetto’s enterprise.
In many areas throughout the exhibition – for example in “Potato Battery” (18x14x.75”, oil on linen, 2015) raised dried paint ridges are brushed over leaving other under-color in the valleys. From a distance, these paint capped peaks and multi-colored troughs can appear to vibrate or merge depending on color combinations and scale. Monet used a similar technique in his late great paintings. In “Catholic Deli” (60x72x1.375”, oil on linen, 2012-15) he uses the dry paint ridge technique in another way. Long diagonal strokes with high peaks along the edges have been laid down and left to dry. He then goes back in to this area and uses those high and dry red ridges as delineating pattern in the yellow field. In “The Bell Notes” the raised under-paint becomes an obstacle for a running red drip that travels down, pools along the silver ledge, and continues on it’s altered way.
Spots of color throughout the show range in scale and appearance. Trying to identify how they were made is tricky. I imagine them to be made using round brushes, paint squeezed straight out of tubes, possibly pastry guns, and maybe squeeze bottles. All of those round dabs have their own characteristic ridges made by different tools lifting off at different speeds, different angles, and out of different viscosities of liquid color. They’re intermingled with airborne drips, dribbles, and splashes all over. Zeroing in on one such area in “Reverse Epiphany” for example, is like looking at a molecular structure through a high-powered microscope or a slice of the outer universe through a giant telescope.
Steve DiBenedetto uses various kinds of tape in different ways in these paintings. He’s using the kind of duct tape that comes in colors and printed patterns. He also uses what appears to be bandage tape. Along the viewer’s upper left edge of “The Bell Notes”, there’s a strip of duct tape with a black, white, and grey camouflage pattern. The camo patterned tape abuts and echoes the faux wood grained partial frame depicted along that left edge. He uses a green strip along the viewer’s upper right hand side of “Seven Grain Satan” too. Usually when you see taped edges, it’s either because the artist is trying to keep the sides of their painting pristine while in progress or it’s because they’re covering dirty edges for presentation purposes. That’s not what’s going on here. These strips of tape seem to have been added over the top of the paint stained edges but they aren’t there to hide anything. They don’t uniformly mask the paint stained edges. Treating the sides in this way recontextualizes the incidental run off and accidental gutter action as compositional decision-making in a sculptural way. They seem to embrace the “accident”, acknowledge the painting as a 3D thing, and reemphasize the importance of the topography throughout many of the paintings. This same kind of thinking is there in the descriptive notation in the show list and on the gallery website. The dimensions of each painting aren’t only showing the vertical and horizontal scale; Steve DiBenedetto has also included the depth of each stretcher. These aren’t just pictures – they’re physical bodies in space.
He uses tape in other ways too. Strips of green duct tape are turned into marks on the face of “The Bell Notes”. In “Indications…” the bandage tape is used as a masking tool. In some places the tape has been pulled away revealing clean edges and in others, the mask tape remains on the surface and covered in paint. Sylvia Mangold’s tape paintings come to mind. I imagine the tape left on the surfaces of these paintings will most likely dry up and fall away like a snake shedding its skin long before the paintings are through pulsing into the future. That makes me nervous. But judging by his apparent embrace of evolving form, I suspect that Steve DiBenedetto won’t mind.
Other techniques at play in these fifteen paintings include matte areas juxtaposed against glossy areas, weird waxy moments, finger painting, spraying, dripping, dropping, and throwing paint. Then there’s the issue of whether areas of color are premixed or mixed on the surface of the painting. One of my favorite details happens in “The Bell Notes” when a running liquid ultramarine line meets a wet cadmium yellow blob, turns green and continues running down.
“Seven Grain Satan” (78x96x1.5”, oil on linen, 2010-2015) looks like it took longer than five years to make. In this one, Steve DiBennedetto’s painter forebears and peers are devoured and digested. The painting is encrusted in layers of former ideas that have been transmuted into one hulking thing. It has the feeling of coming into existence in as mysterious a way as a barnacle on one of those broken pylons sticking out of the East River in Lower Manhattan. Like “I, Robot” – “Seven Grain Satan” feels ancient and new at the same time. In the center of the painting there is a crusty ovoid thing flashing like “The Colour Out of Space”. This multicolored many layered egg has a crack in it. It oozes potential. The pulsating Cthulu green field is reminiscent of the light emanating from the sacred ancient building at the bottom of the ocean as described in HP Lovecraft’s short story “The Temple”. In some areas, you see the white ground of the original bare surface shining through washy transparencies of color. There’s a sense of the beginning in those places. The central image appears to be a vertical helicopter with it’s damaged blades melded with an octopus. This biomechanical form recalls the moment at the end of David Cronenberg’s “The Fly” when Brundlefly and the telepod are merged into one. Other more abstract sub-pictures seem to be emerging from the corners of “Seven Grain Satan”. Those sub-pictorial corners feel unresolved; the irresolution grips and nags. What I thought at first was a negative becomes an undertow that keeps pulling me back in. “Seven Grain Satan” is a titanic masterpiece.
Steve DiBenedetto’s “Mile High Psychiatry” is up at Derek Eller Gallery from March 20 – April 25, 2015. The show has been extended for an additional week. Don’t miss it! 615 West 27th Street, NY, NY 10001
All images used with the permission of the artist and Derek Eller Gallery.