PRINT March 2001


That profound Silence, that only Voice of our God, which I before spoke of; from that divine thing without a name, those impostor philosophers pretend somehow to have got an answer; which is as absurd, as though they should say they had got water out of stone; for how can a man get a Voice out of Silence?
—Herman Melville, Pierre, or the Ambiguities

IN 1998, THE AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY hosted an exhibition called “Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou.” In the final section of the show, one came across several elaborately reconstructed altars, including one for the Haitian secret society known as the Bizango. There, amid carved phallic canes, shrouded machetes, and beaded bottles, was a jarring representation of Bawon Samdi, the Vodou lord of the dead: a twelve-inch figurine of Darth Vader. Samdi is usually shown in funereal black clothing, with a skull for a face and carrying a sword. The Bizango's easy grasp of Vader's underlying attributes was a case of the dry, seminar-room concept of syncretism colliding with the reality of a living, breathing practice. With his phallic flared helmet and implacable menace, Vader fit in easily and pointed up the ways that Vodou is a living religion, still incorporating images and narratives from the world around it. Popular culture has become yet another source for the faithful, taking its place alongside African gods, Catholic saints, and Masonic symbols.

If a branch of Vodou had sprouted up in turn-of-the-century New England, its artifacts might look something like the work of the thirty-two-year-old, New York-based Matthew Benedict. In form Benedict's art is kaleidoscopic, incorporating embroidery, printmaking, painting, and found objects, but underlying these varied impulses is a constant sense of swooning, skeptical melancholy. At first glance his pieces look like odd finds from a Cape Cod antique shop stocked with ephemera from the period between, say, the Civil War and World War I, an era marked by a Yankee faith in progress crossed with an obsession with the supernatural, a time of textile mills and spirit mediums. The odd admixture was forcefully imagined by Herman Melville, one of Benedict's favorite authors of the period, who was capable of creating a character as eighteenth century as Billy Budd and one as twentieth century as the Confidence-Man. It was the heyday of a protomodernism that still dared to imagine a human dimension. The First World War brought an end to all that, brutally introducing rampant nationalism wedded to advanced technology and producing in its wake a cynicism that destroyed the vestiges of nineteenth-century humanism. In turn, the war created a cult for the soldiers maimed and killed in its trenches, dead youths who would become poster boys for movements across the political and aesthetic spectrum.

Benedict's work savors this moment of lost innocence while questioning the extent to which we can ever truly understand the past we venerate. His objects often seem like fragments from a parallel universe where the allegorical practices of the Renaissance never disappeared. This is fitting, given Benedict's concern with the occult and its eruptions into the mundane. In his work, desire, especially gay desire, is seen as the entrance to another realm, a secret society filled with coded imagery. Several of his pieces are bits from extended narratives. A painting and sculpture in a recent show at Alexander and Bonin in New York depicted episodes from the life of a certain Officer Fellows, a 1920s motorcycle policeman whom Benedict portrays on a desolate nocturnal highway, racing past the beacon of a northeastern lighthouse. The works offer a romantic meditation across the gulf of time on a man Benedict could know only in the most glancing way: Happening upon some of the officer's equipment in an antique shop, he imagined the details of Officer Fellows's life. The very act of faith involved in their construction is a melancholy, quietly moving gesture. Benedict seems possessed by his possessions, the medium for the voice of a departed spirit. The emotional resonance at the heart of Benedict's paintings and sculptures is hard to reconcile with the work's physical reality. His carefully made pieces often have their origins in the most inert or puerile materials. Looking Glass, 2000, is a fogged mirror with splintered plastic models of schooners glued around its frame. Nothing has been done to glamorize these little shards; they are simply covered with a unifying coat of off-whlte paint. At first the item looks old and dear, but even a cursory examination makes clear that these things are wood and plastic and inexpensive. Still, the longer one views the work, the more one is struck by the emotional power of the mirror wreathed in maritime disaster, a disaster rendered even more poignant by our awareness of its artifice.

Other sculptures contrast this world of nostalgia and shadows with the fantastic, aggressively optimistic physiques of action figures. The Trumps, 1998–2000, is a parade of the Major Arcana (in a simplified sense, the face cards) of the tarot marching across a long narrow table. The twenty-two cards making up the Major Arcana are the most emblematic of the deck, and supposedly the oldest. They constitute a system of archetypes that can be seen as descriptive of the entire universe. In Benedict's version, each figure is made of a conglomeration of various toys, plastic-doll wrestlers, comic-book heroes, crib ornaments, and so on, following the description of the cards. The Tower, for example, is depicted by a souvenir ceramic lighthouse, broken at the tip, with an army man spilling out the top. The artist has tied the disparate elements together by painting them a creamy white and numbering each tableau, retaining the cards' classic order. There is a delightful inventiveness in the way that he has remained faithful to the cards while pillaging Toys “R” Us.

Though Benedict's objects are not antiques, they approximate the look of vintage goods; then they turn around and draw attention to the approximation. No one would be fooled into believing that Lucifer, 2000, a bowling ball on a base with a toy attached, is a black patinated bronze. Rude Screen, 2000, is clearly a row of crutches with plastic figures glued to it. And yet for a moment these pieces hover convincingly in the realm of elegance, even piety. Christianity in particular turns on the passage between the mundane and the divine, and on some level all of the artist's work is a wish for transubstantiation. In an earlier series depicting Catholic saints, he takes pains to couple each saint with his or her proper emblem while introducing distancing mechanisms to make sure we remain in the here and now.

Benedict approaches painting in much the same way he does sculpture. With their palette of luscious putties and blue grays that call to mind turn-of-the-century commercial and decorative artists, particularly J.C. Leyendecker, an illustrator best known for his 1920s Arrow shirt advertisements, Benedict's paintings evoke the homosocial world of period magazines filled with tales of manly adventure among the Rough Riders or the Dough Boys. His yearning for the milieu of his subjects is palpable, but his distancing devices prevent our immersion in that universe. Several recent works pile faux upon faux, mimicking trompe l'oeil conventions only to give the lie to them the next moment. In Baking Bread for the Boys, 2000, for example, Benedict has painted a ragged edge along the top of the image that at first seems baffling. Anyone wishing us to believe we were looking at a “real” painting from the time would have actually torn the edge of the canvas or rendered the painted tear more exactingly. Benedict must be pointing to something else. Like the other clearly contemporary elements in his works, these insistent indications are a second level of secret sign. Benedict is laying bare the fact that every imagination of the past is a fiction, but a fiction that gains its power through our enactment of it. As in a Masonic ritual serving to remind its participants of abstract meanings through a supposedly ancient ceremony, the understanding that the symbol is a symbol doesn't negate its capacity to move us. Indeed, occult practices depend on that understanding for their power to amplify our response. The seeming inconsistencies in Benedict's work make us all adepts, decoders of a clandestine language of modern image and historical misstep.

For all Benedict's admiration of Melville, his work veers closer to that of another New Englander, horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. Melville's generation believed in the possibility of a new mythology appropriate to the New World and equal in power to that of Europe; for Lovecraft, the mythical has become a dimension of terror, and the isolated woods of New England harbor the fragmentary knowledge of old gods, alien and vengeful. Benedict's imagery—founding fathers engaged in Masonic ritual, samplers embroidered with magical symbols—seems haunted by a similar sense of debasement. Conceived in devotion, these pieces flirt with paranoia and can seem mournful in their figuring of desire awoken and then knowingly renounced. But can devotion to a moving, emotionally charged image actually redeem us?

At its source Benedict's work tackles the mystery of faith, of devotion to a set of venerated images, by pursuing it in all its permutations and approaching it through the lens of desire. His is a peculiar idolatry, but it is heartening that he tries to look seriously at what many artists would never consider. Faith remains the hardest nut for contemporary artists to crack. After the severe jolts of the past century, the replacement of the human by the machine, and the machine by information, it is easier for an artist to profess an interest, even an obsession with an idea, image, or activity than to profess a faith in the power of an image, to give him- or herself over to its peculiar charge. Benedict may have located the one place where genuine feeling is still available to us: that place where, fully conscious of the compromised nature of this world, we still dare to imagine, and inhabit, another one.