Ben Stone

To make a complex monumental sculpture today from a small 1960s drawing by a MAD magazine cartoonist exemplifies a kind of engaged—and endearing—high/low apotheosis of the stupid. Ben Stone’s Foneboner (all works 2007) is just that, an overblown homage so earnest and respectful to its source that it functions like a giant Baroque altar, secure in the unquestioned authority of its iconography. A ten-foot-tall multifigure ensemble, it depicts Fester Bestertester and his giddy and goofy family, as originally visualized by the late Don Martin for MAD and its paperback publications.

Martin rendered his signature Everyman (if Everyman was a good-natured cretin), his family, and Fester’s sidekick, Karbunckle, tossed upward from a roller coaster run amok, their prehensile bodies akimbo. Stone presents pretty much the same scenario; we gaze up at the Bestertesters triumphans as they float aloft like plaster putti, apparently unconcerned by their dilemma. The work’s monumental scale and the artist’s fastidious technique carry the day; what might have been a gesture of respect to a cultural mentor—one perhaps encountered by Stone in his teenage years—gets carried to a kind of overblown mania that transcends tongue-in-cheek irony to achieve something more obsessive and even sinister. It seems to represent an awkward moment of openhanded nostalgia giving way to giddy cultural necrophilia.

Calvin on Calvin is a large vinyl wall piece showing a mischievous Calvin dropping trou and urinating on the back of a meek doppelgänger kneeling in prayer at the foot of a cross. Riffing on the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, Stone visualizes the age-old confrontation between good and evil, with the latter in temporary ascendancy, here fought out within the doubled character of Calvin himself (the comic character was actually named for theologian John Calvin). That a cartoon character can be made the site of such stuff is Stone’s interest here—that the détournement of mainstream icons might constitute a new vernacular, instantly recognizable, and capable of more subtlety than one might imagine.

Restraining Order functions in a comparable way, by subverting a legal mechanism; Benjamin Stone officially took out a restraining order against himself in the guise of Benjamin R. Stone. He filed the paperwork with the proper authorities and exhibited here the originals and copies that were signed by Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County Dorothy Brown and Judge Daniel Miranda. Stone also concealed dual video cameras outside his front door and awaited the arrival of the police serving the order, and the accompanying video of an officer explaining to Stone that he is to avoid all contact with Stone (imagining, one supposes, that there is another Benjamin Stone who made the complaint), explaining the legal ramifications of disobeying this order, is both pathetic and funny. The exquisite existential concept of being legally forbidden to be in touch with oneself, to hold oneself as a potential threat to oneself, to seek the protection of the state against oneself, seems more Stone’s concern here than sending up the ham-fisted and incompetent trappings of bureaucracy. But, as with many of his projects, Restraining Order works both ways, and he always manifests the possibilities in culpability about more than the violation of a county court order.

James Yood