Titled “A Bone in the Cheese,” Will Benedict’s first solo show at Bortolami recalled Archibald MacLeish’s absurdist, apocalyptic sonnet about a circus in which an “armless ambidextrian” lights a match between his toes for an audience under the big top. The poet cleverly uses the tent to suggest the entire world, crowded with pitiable freaks, including both the performers and the onlookers. In Benedict’s show, the gallery likewise functioned as a microcosm of the world, as a structure containing the banalities of everyday life, which were conveyed in the 14 paintings and lone video (all 2014 or 2015) on view.
One wall displayed the painting Your Mattress: What You Don’t Know Can Kill You, which features a small charcoal drawing of a rather heavy marmot gazing to the right with neutral eyes. Hung adjacent to this work was a painting incorporating a printed image of a middle-aged man walking left with his back turned—one of four untitled works featuring shots of oblivious pedestrians, a collaborative effort with artist Tom Humphreys. There were many such “missed connections” here, but with a title so irrational and repellent as “A Bone in the Cheese,” it is no wonder that uneasiness pervaded.
Benedict created a sense of displacement within individual works, too. Many of the paintings (including Your Mattress, for instance) layer realistic images over larger abstract grounds. The first has depth; the second is flat, effectively halting the eye. In the best example of this tactic, a graphic image of a black-and-white segment of a road receding from view is placed atop a swirling mustard yellow ground; the stark “road to nowhere” sits trapped within the vibrant expanse. Displayed next to this untitled work was Yellowing Landscape, which offers a muted landscape amid a peachy gouache composition.
In the video, titled The Bed That Eats, a solitary bed sits in a dark room, droning, incomprehensibly, the lyrics of a track by minimalist blues duo Stare Case. Suddenly blanketed in alcohol and junk food, the bed begins to speak through the space between its mattress and box spring. It spews its grub. “So s-a-a-a-d,” it whines, a farcical representation of the depressive state. We are brought inside its mouth. There is a ghostly McDonald’s with a sign proclaiming, “Delivery now available.” Then we are taken outside the bed, to the lawn of its house, which promptly lifts up off the ground and flies away; a dog barks after it. In the outer galaxy, an errant bone dislodges from the dirt around the structure’s foundation and spins in space.
The seemingly pointless incongruity of the works on view speaks less to some inherent power of the banal than to the existential freedom of individuals in the everyday—the ability to embrace absurdity as a means of contending with the human condition. Partway through MacLeish’s “End of the World,” the top of the circus tent blows off to reveal a great void, a “black pall,” and at its core, “nothing, nothing, nothing—nothing at all.”