Steve DiBenedetto’s Art Embraces Incoherence

Two distinct but related artists seem to inhabit Steve DiBenedetto’s consciousness: the one who paints fibrous forms in oil and pigment and the one who draws shapes in colored pencil connected by networks of lines. Simultaneously meticulous and restless, he likes to push the paint around and discover what bodily form might emerge from its combination of malleability and resistance. Lines in different configurations join isolated forms in the drawings, bringing to mind mystical diagrams, complex circuitry, and impenetrable delivery systems.

I am going to begin here with DiBenedetto the painter. In contrast to gestural abstraction, which tends to be full of juicy, smeary brushstrokes that expand outward, the artist has found a way to compress his layered brushstrokes. Everything he does appears to be deliberate and tense, slow and keyed up. This quality merges perfectly with his gristly forms, where interior cavities and exterior skin seem to pass through each other. Conversely, the drawings — although clearly by the same artist — are constellations of circular and irregular forms connected by dense, rhythmic networks of swaying lines. 

Together, these two bodies of work suggest that DiBenedetto is preoccupied with the relationship between the physical body and states of exalted consciousness, vulnerable materiality and the desire for divine illumination. He is a visionary artist who undercuts the seriousness of his quest with goofy, koan-like titles.

His current exhibition, Steve DiBenedetto: Uncertainty Takes a Holiday at David Nolan Gallery, features eight paintings in one room of the gallery and five drawings in a hallway on the second-floor landing. As immediate and visceral as these works are, they are slow to reveal themselves.

Steve DiBenedetto, “Uncertainty Takes a Holiday” (2022–23), oil on linen, 28 x 22 inches

Several of the eight paintings evoke Philip Guston, but rather than just citing Guston’s motifs, DiBenedetto has transformed them into something recognizably his own. Imagine that Guston’s one-eyed faces and piles of limbs have been turned inside out, so that interior matter and exterior skin cannot be told apart. The results are comic and gruesome, wounded and monstrous, self-contained and scarred. Are the bodies undergoing regeneration or decay? 

In “Uncertainty Takes a Holiday” (2022–23), DiBenedetto depicts a central, one-eyed form from which 11 appendages extend, each culminating in a circular shape pressing against the picture plane. The distinctly colored circles suggest that the rest of the appendage has been amputated, leaving behind scar tissue. Near the center of the painting and in the head-like form we see an almond-shaped eye. With its multiple appendages, this sentient creature is DiBenedetto’s latest manifestation of the motif of the octopus, a highly intelligent animal whose head and body are one. It also suggests an interest in Hindu deities, such as Ganesha and Vishnu.

The separation of mind and body, as formulated by French philosopher René Descartes, is one of the underlying motivations of DiBenedetto’s art. Is the brain simply organic matter? What is consciousness? What are the limits of self-awareness against the backdrop of infinity and the universe’s indifference to our existence? What are we to make of the glow that seems to be coming from behind the multi-limbed body? These are among the questions the artist folds into his work. 

The curving lines and circles of “Particle Ashram” (2022–23) seems to owe something to rangoli (also known as “Sand Mandalas”), an impermanent form of drawing that originated on the Indian subcontinent and incorporates rice flour, turmeric, flower petals, and other granular materials. And yet, even as I make this connection, it is clear that DiBenedetto is not appropriating from this folk art practice. Rather, as with all the work in this marvelous exhibition, he is pushing further into a territory that has become recognizably his without relying on signature motifs. 

Steve DiBenedetto, “Particle Ashram” (2022–23), oil on linen, 30 x 24 inches

This push is best exemplified by “Helgoland” (2023), the exhibition’s biggest painting. By working on a large scale, DiBenedetto challenged himself to go beyond the single blob-like figural form and network of lines and dots. Three or more bodies appear to be in the painting. Where does one body end and the other begin? While reading the painting horizontally is likely to prompt you to see three upright bodies, reading each figure vertically may change that perception. How are the multi-limbed creatures in the painting’s lower left side and the one atop the middle figure related? Refusing to knit the painting together by making the forms visually consistent with one another, DiBenedetto risks incoherency — something few painters are willing to do. The longer I looked the more everything in the painting felt right and necessary.

The three forms — rendered in pinks, reds, purples, and yellows against a purple ground — do not seem related to each other, nor do we know what they might be or represent. Because they resist identification, they raise questions about the art world’s need to name and categorize the artist’s intention. By pushing back against the literal as well as the appropriation of motifs from other cultures and traditions, DiBenedetto has opened up an inchoate space for himself in which he relies solely on paint to move forward, to “stand,” as the poet Charles Olson wrote, “more revealed.” 

I can think of few artists who, through the process of painting, are willing to place their work in jeopardy by denying the viewer a definition or resolution. In this regard, DiBenedetto’s art extends out of Willem de Kooning’s well-documented process — containing some of the same unsettling humor, but none of the misogyny — while rejecting painterly expressionism. The pieces convey neither nostalgia nor heroics. Their figures are abject, wounded, and mute; they seem to have succeeded at nothing. Perhaps that is what the artist wants us to recognize about ourselves — to see his misshapen bodies and still be able to laugh at who we are. 

Steve DiBenedetto: Uncertainty Takes a Holiday continues at David Nolan Gallery (24 East 81st Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through December 9. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

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