Magazine article Artforum International

The Art of Matthew Benedict Shroud of Truro

Magazine article Artforum International

The Art of Matthew Benedict Shroud of Truro

Article excerpt

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. …

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