Steve DiBenedetto, REworked, 2019-2020, Oil on linen, 25 x 19 inches
In April, John Yau wrote a piece for Hyperallergic on Steve DiBenedetto’s work during isolation: “What Do Artists Need to Make Their Work?” Everything looked fantastic in situ. I wanted more and, sure enough, Landing on Fractions, an online exhibition of Steve DiBenedetto’s recent work (Derek Eller Gallery), launched on May 28. My first visit was on my phone. The online exhibition, like innumerable others during the pandemic, is essentially an elaborate press release due to the lack of in-person viewing. Eight artworks are presented with a Q&A and two studio shots, end-capped by a painting from two years ago for context.
When visiting a show in person, art is subject to viewing from all angles, providing a wealth of haptic information: impasto, shadows, brushstrokes, sheen. Technical questions arise: Was the paper prepared? How was that white ink applied? Was solvent used? Online, my autonomy as a viewer is gone and I don’t know what I’m missing.
Because the minutiae of physical inspection isn’t available to analyze, I wander into pictorial wonderlands of interpretation I rarely allow myself to take. DiBenedetto has previously said, “I want to keep the idea that I don’t know what I want to paint as the operative force in the work, in spite of the fact that sometimes things do get painted, you know.”
Steve DiBenedetto, Foinsapp, 2020, Color pencil on paper, 17 x14 inches
The show has two oils and six works on paper. Foinsapp speaks directly to me. It’s like a tuning device. We’re on the same frequency and it zings up the fuzziness. It’s a painterly wrestling match of layered pigments.
A dark form with undeniable SpongeBob features hovers, surrounded by sky blue. A virus-like form on the left appears caught in the vortex of a breath. Inside is a mysterious cacophony of forms. There are three oculi, which I sometimes perceive as the Three Graces — the central being in operatic song. The left oculus is a throbbing labyrinthine energy source. Gravity may be operative, but it’s suspended in electric shock. The piece is an exquisite consciousness enhancer. It captures its moment perfectly.
Foinsapp is apparently the onomatopoeic word for the sound made when a saw smacks a person in the face, taken from Mad Magazine (Issue 23, 1977). In a physical gallery, I might not have even checked the title, let alone looked into its meaning.
Painting seems inherently suitable for online viewing — it’s flat, it photographs well, it’s still — but at what cost do we just accept painted pictorial imagery as digitally reproducible? Certainly, digital platforms have earned their place at the art world table at this point. But, without physical artworks to inspect, they present us with an incomplete experience. The missing pieces don’t deepen the mystery, they obscure it. I look forward to another opportunity to see DiBenedetto’s work in person.
Sean McDonough, Beta Star Maker, 2019, Acrylic, canvas, linen, denim, threads, 87 x 96 inches
Regarding my own practice, I always have two bodies of work going. For the past few years, they had been large-scale sewn paintings and watercolors. The sewn paintings, which I assemble from individually painted components, take up my entire East Williamsburg studio. Since March, I’ve only been there twice to pick up supplies.
At home in Queens, I resumed regularly working with oils. Time was all mine. Simple line drawings came easily; I completed six paintings consecutively based on these drawings. They’re orderly, colorful and unabashedly phallic. As I began another, civil unrest following George Floyd’s murder became our new zeitgeist while COVID-19 rages out of control. As usual, I allowed self-doubt to beckon as I absorbed reality. I don’t even know what to make of those six paintings yet. Meanwhile, I’ve continued working on components for two sewn paintings, but can’t assemble them until I’m back at my studio regularly.
Weeks passed without an urge to use oils again, but I’ve continued with drawing and watercolors. Time reassured me I was on an honest path. Social justice isn’t a part of my practice; I’m not here to pander to a moment. In the Q&A section of this exhibition, DiBenedetto wrote about a time in high school when he dropped bricks onto a painting, an early adventure into “the virtues of pictorial abuse.” I love that description of his process. It lends me freedom to let my paintings develop on their own, outside of any order, as they used to before self-consciousness became constant. Despite craving an orderly process, the planning I put into these current oil paintings is inversely proportional to my own satisfaction. I’ve begun several more canvases with zero expectation of completion. Not knowing is my current status.
Link: Landing on Fractions, an online exhibition of Steve DiBenedetto’s recent work at the Derek Eller Gallery
Sean McDonough (b. 1985, Brooklyn, NY) is a painter and teacher based in New York. He received a BS from New York University and an MFA from the Hoffberger School of Painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art. He attributes a high school internship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to transforming the direction of his life, and counts the connoisseurship of painting as his pedagogical focus. More of his work can be seen at seanmcdonoughstudio.com.