Steve DiBenedetto
by Dike Blair

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 some patches of sky, and you see panoramas, cross sections, core samples, micros and macros; but you can't read all of this at the same time. This is not the systemized simultaneity of cubism; this is a tortuous mindscape. You get sucked in, get tangled and confused, you have to withdraw from the picture to get your ground, and then re-enter 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 of. And often, next to one of those 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 packed uncomfortably in a rectangular box.

The things--helicopters, octopuses, Ferris wheels, merry-go-rounds--that churn these perspectives are also evocative as images. They signal flight, fear, and childhood. They lead me to something like Apocalypse Now directed by Terrence McKenna, or Something Wicked This Way Comes by Jacques Costeau. Kind of. Even though he's used this same set of imagery in almost every recent painting and drawing, they never coalesce into any easy narrative. 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 multiple paintings over a number of months or, sometimes, years. Every inch of the canvas gets stroked, diddled, and scraped. They get built up and wiped out. On a recent studio visit, I was surprised to see the compositional under-painting was relatively serene and balanced. In fact, there is quite a bit of grace in DiBenedetto's gestures, like the serpentine elegance of his arabesques and runes, and the gestural sinuousness of an octopus's tentacles.

Though very much of the same spirit, his recent drawings charm where the paintings challenge. They're less difficult in one sense because they don't have the paintings' creepy skin--instead the paper is covered in obsessive, clustered, flowing, eighth inch pencil strokes. The scale and clarity of the drawings makes reading things like an octopus's body morphing into an inorganic chromium vortex, or the speed blur of a chopper's blade generating intricate lattices with peepholes into different realities, easier. The drawings share qualities with those of mental patients and would fit easily in the Prinzhorn Collection were it not for their understated hipness and formal savvy. In these drawings 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 a bad trips." While the work was, and remains, undeniably psychedelic, drugs were never really the subject. I realize now that what he's always been interested in portraying, and in making physical, is consciousness. He co-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 (drugs do do it well), but DiBenedetto's unsettling art succeeds.