Sergio Risaliti, “Sacred Disorder: You don’t make art, you find it” in “Manfredi Beninati”, Cambi, 2016
After taking part in an “insular” show alongside Enzo Cucchi and Laboratorio Saccardi1, a pair of young Palermo artists, Manfredi Beninati is back at the Poggiali gallery again with a series of new works: paintings, sculptures, photos, bronzes, lightboxes, plaster bas-reliefs and assemblages. The display strategy Beninati has adopted to attract and seduce the viewer works like this: changes of scene, of rhythm, of materials, of light, of iconography and so forth. Variety comes up trumps: the desire to amaze and to enchant, to delightfully intrigue and fascinate. For Beninati art is an initiatic, Orphic experience. Art is to be found in the street, in the folds of the unconscious, on the shelves of the collective memory: it is a moment of grace, of illumination. The artist becomes a seer and a clairvoyant, a shaman and an alchemist. Each room is part of a succession of metamorphoses. Beninati has a remarkable mastery over the means and the techniques and – in the best Italian tradition – the flaunted nonchalance should not deceive. In the design and in the execution he mingles fury and concentration, frenzy and meditation. He manipulates the painting in procedures that are slow and/or rhapsodic; the same happens with sculpture. Each photograph is constructed slowly: the actual shot is preceded by a long process of constructing and organising the set. In his youth Beninati worked in cinema, where he became familiar with set design and film editing. He succeeds in giving an air of naturalness even to the disorder of an artist’s studio. On exhibit here is an alternation and succession of differences and thematic leaps, of contrasts and linguistic diversities, and at the same time of analogies, resemblances and formal correspondences, signs and images that move transversally from one room to the next, from one material to another. The intimate, hermetic settings of the luminous photos, with their nocturnal atmosphere redolent of seventeenth-century Nordic painting, are far removed from the fantastical world of the plaster bas-reliefs. Here the screenplay is not entirely rational, and yet nor is it entirely random. There is an astute dosage of improvisation and design, of extemporaneity and planning. When painting matter he knows how to leave the hand free. The bas-reliefs are painted in an informal manner, spreading the colour on the shape, letting it slip and working and mixing it, in some cases even dirtying it. Beninati is strategically eclectic, in the techniques, in the citations. The iconographic range is vast: a Giorgione-style Venus coexists with exotic landscapes, a foetus floats on the surface of the plaster, an Impressionist seascape with a mythological scene, eighteenth-century painting and formless signs, imprints and citations: in a word, a mnemonic and formal pastiche. Memories surface of days spent in the gentle hills around Florence or in Versilia, places dear to nineteenth and twentieth-century painters such as Silvestro Lega and Carlo Carrà. Walking round the rooms of the gallery we constantly have the impression that the artist wants to disorient us, to bridle us, forcing us to lose our way, step after step, in a conceptual, figurative, technical and material labyrinth, to give a “reminiscent” emotional rhythm to our visual experience. We pause before a series of works, we gain confidence with that language and those images, but then the next series engages us in a new aesthetic adventure. The images are made of light, then of plaster and bronze or painted, and also not illusory, but found objects. In epistemological and psychological terms the itinerary is constructed according to an open vision, as if the entrances and exits, the planes and sequences were parallel and entwined realities, mirroring and reversible. In these works Beninati is telling us that it is possible to live several lives, that we find ourselves active in several worlds and in different temporal planes, and that this happens simultaneously. In formal terms, for example, the nonchalance in the bronzes and the plasters is one thing, whereas the affected randomness of the luminous images and in the assemblages is a completely different experience. But the path can also be followed backwards.
In certain cases everyday reality offers opportunities for surprise and amazement. Just walking down the road Beninati finds works already made. He comes across cast-off objects heaped up beside a rubbish bin. And yet this thrown-together jumble, used and outdated furniture, strikes him as having been piled up with a certain geometric perfection, as if the owner had unwittingly improvised a “still life”, arranging and piling up the pieces paying careful attention to the proportions, to the depth, imagining a visual pyramid. These are objects which, in their own way, tell a story. Before being crushed to pieces in some dump they take their leave of the world with courtesy and a certain decorum. The viewer, like the passer-by, is all too frequently inattentive, distracted, blinkered by prejudice or preconception, failing to realise how much art there is in the streets. It can be nestling behind a rubbish bin, on a stall of junk, amidst tattered posters. These are evocative images, frequently melancholic in tone: they are “Vanitas”. In this case, Beninati urges us to stop and take stock, to look from a distance and from close up, to grasp the general and the particular in marginal things. To enter into reality again from another door, evading temporal linearity: tempus fugit. The lightboxes, for instance, demand this sort of attention, a constant adaptation of vision, from the general to the particular, from the centre of the image towards the edges, from light to darkness. And Beninati also manages to achieve this type of performance in the case of an installation. In a room in the gallery he has decided to present an assemblage that came about almost as a joke, as a provocation, practically by accident. And yet the installation has a fundamental methodological value, and even a didactic purpose. Next to a door open onto a small room Beninati has affixed a photograph that he took in a Florentine alley. The photo shows what grasped the artist’s interest, and what in a moment will also demand our attention. Leaving a restaurant he bumped into something that literally enchanted him. In the photograph we can see furniture, a heap of sundry thrown-away objects arranged in pyramidal order. Beninati didn’t settle for simply photographing the scene. He collected the objects one by one and brought them to the gallery, where he piled them up again exactly as they had been, adhering strictly to the composition he had found in the street. He used the photo that we are now looking at to help him. It’s not immediately clear what aroused such interest in him, what justified such great admiration. After all, it’s a situation that we come across frequently in the city; people get rid of their old stuff, they clear out basements and attics. And yet, after we enter the room, we cannot help seeing that he was right. What Beninati grasped was a certain aura, a cult probability. But the aura didn’t belong to the objects individually – a cupboard, a chest – but to the construction as a whole, the mis-en-scène with its own particular, figurative luminous grace. For an artist, a found work is something that deserves to survive in its guise as work of art. In this case we are admiring a funeral monument, a tomb constructed from the poor vestiges of a past everyday life. The collages, the assemblages and the environments have educated us in the poetry of fragments, of the random and the banal. According to Joseph Cornell, walking the streets we find ourselves “plunged into [a] world of complete happiness in which every triviality becomes imbued with a significance”.2 According to the great American artist, the everyday is impregnated with metaphysical light. We can be surprised by epiphanies everywhere. In that pile of objects with their lost history, with their charge of anonymous memories, Beninati grasped a metaphysical light. That pile reminded me of the Furniture in the Valley painted by Giorgio de Chirico, whom Cornell admired greatly. It is almost as if Beninati had averted an energy, as if those objects had revealed themselves to him as “the hidden signs of the new melancholy”.3 Melancholy indeed hovers over Beninati’s works, in the images in the lightboxes and in the bas-reliefs and the bronzes. Such melancholy and such exhilaration. Through this operation – essentially it is again a simple ready-made – the artist reveals much of his poetics to us. And he does it with grace, with politeness, but also with a totally modernist linguistic insistence. Leaving that room, I immediately connected the pyramid of furniture with what I had seen at the beginning of the exhibition, at exactly the opposite end of the gallery where Beninati presented a series of lightboxes and a little ‘theatre’ of sundry objects, things that he had piled up and used to produce the backlit photos. At bottom, for Beninati there’s no difference between creating and finding. In the end what counts is the triggered emotion. Just as there’s no difference between the melancholy and the exhilaration, rather one is enwrapped in the other. And in both cases the next step is a profound reflection on death and on the divine.
The route mapped out by Beninati is centrifugal. Because the centre does not hold the truth, the ultimate substance of reality; no primal meaning comes to greet us. And indeed there is no centre, but only parallel planes. No sooner have we become familiar with one kind of work than we are forced to address another kind. When you push your nose up against the lightboxes, the images of the paintings, the number of details, figures, genres is enough to make your head spin. Opposites are cancelled, contrary categories coexist. In Beninati’s world there is no negation; the figurative edifice is constructed like a taxonomic, archaeological dialogue. Order is not hierarchical. The image corresponds to a reverie, a daydream. Everything belongs to the dream world, and the combinational logic is yielded with the same rationality and vagueness with which reality is represented in a dream. And so we have the iconographic and symbolic abundance, the representation of space with no geographical coordinates, the intersection of realism and abstraction, the mingling of eras and days, archetypes and mythologems. As in the paintings, as in the bas-reliefs. It is as if the artist were guided by a more ancient memory, by a hand not his, by an atavistic intelligence, which precedes him and which already belonged to him. The past runs before our eyes, as if it were “a frame in a much longer film”. And that film is wound strangely, as if it were a Mӧbius strip. His meta-dreamlike landscapes and his existential chronicle are closely related: the everyday, incorporated as memory, is manipulated and reformulated by the unconscious as image. And it is the unconscious that, through unconditional illuminations, provides the material best suited to pictorial transfiguration. And so experience is submerged in a much more remote time, and, when it re-emerges, it comes to the surface together with what has been repressed and with the archetype. Elements of an archaeology that is also cosmology and biology settle upon the painting. As Giorgio de Chirico says: “One can deduce and conclude that every object has two aspects: one current one, which we see almost always see and which is seen by men in general, and the other, which is spectral or metaphysical and is seen only by rare individuals in moments of clairvoyance”.4 Indeed; and here we have one these rare individuals sitting in a study, studying, drawing and reading by the light of a dim bulb. He looks like an alchemist. It is probably the artist, surprised by an indiscreet photographer at the moment of greatest concentration, when – alone and in the depths of the night – he abandons the restricted confines of study and navigates in the cosmos, retracing and reliving previous epochs and snatches of earlier lives. At that moment ,infancy and eternity meet, as do play and the sacred, poetry and divination. “Many people have already speculated about the relation between play and the sacred. The light of reverie, let us note, is a dim light. The near darkness of old churches and old movies is that of dreams. Our memories are divine images because memory is not subject to the ordinary laws of time and space. Making deities is what we do in our reverie. Images surrounded by shadow and silence. Silence is that vast, cosmic church in which we always stand alone. Silence is the only language God speaks”.5 A marble sculpture reproduces a book of the artist’s sketches and notes, a cup of coffee, erasers, a pencil, a pencil sharpener and a closed book. The marble is engraved, the writing in the notebook is coloured, in blue and red ink. We can identify childish drawings, calculations, dates, things to do or to remember. The same set of things shaped in the marble can be found in the little theatre built in the gallery and can also be glimpsed in the lightboxes.
This is the list of works: ten lightboxes (that is, back-lit photos); about nine bas-reliefs in plaster treated with coloured resin so as to cancel both the whitish skin and the neoclassical memory and obtain a more Renaissance amber patina; a series of small bronzes, treated in different ways, and finally three paintings. One of these is a diptych, which in its composition recalls the Portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino, one of the most famous works by Piero della Francesca, while the others are large canvases. Three of the plaster bas-reliefs are also reproduced in bronze. Here too Beninati has used a patina, seeking to add a pictorial touch to the surfaces. Other bas-reliefs repeat the same scenes and have been painted. The peak of tension is to be found in the room with the bronzes, where on a long, very narrow table about fifteen bronzes of varying sizes have been placed. At the beginning of the pedestal is the corpse of a small bird in bronze, and at the end of the base is a fairly tall mushroom, an atomic mushroom: captivating, pernicious. Between these two – which are also sentimental poles – Beninati has placed ponies, a barn owl, a series of almost caricatured busts and heads, female figures, a strange hooded figure which could have emerged from the Star Wars saga. It is, in short, an anomalous sample of figures, juxtaposed with what seems the eclectic taste of a collector or antiquarian. The range of passions is highly varied and multiform. Beloved objects to be found scattered throughout the house, on the shelves of the family bookcase, in the study, on the desk. Or, much more simply, displayed all together on the stall of a flea market.
And so we have lightboxes, painting and sculpture, that is, languages and techniques of the classical and the postmodern worlds, through which the artist confirms his multifaceted inspiration and ability, a way of living and thinking, of remembering and citing, digging in the past, re-exhuming images, experiences and micro-events from the unconscious. Wishing to stop time, Beninati has added an installation which is both a work in itself and a set, constructed in the days leading up to the exhibition. What he has staged is a warehouse-atelier. The assemblage was necessary to create the images for the lightboxes. Observing the back-lit photos we can identify in the heap: beloved objects, working tools, mannequins, frames, tins, banners, wooden toys, cigarette ends, table lamps, notebooks and sheets of drawing paper, books and rolls of cardboard, ladders, boxes, pencils, strips of wood, wrapping paper, and so on. Even the dust and sawdust the things are covered in. And even the imprint of a hand. As if that room were a Palaeolithic cave, the imprint has been left for future memory, and perhaps to ward off evil, by a shaman painter. Nor is it the first time Beninati has performed an archaeological excavation of this kind. He has presented similar assemblages – theatres of objects and actions suspended in time – in both solo and group shows: hotchpotches, jumbles, medleys of the most disparate and curious objects. In all these cases he works thinking about the framing, and hence the emotional reaction of the spectator who has the sensation of peeking through a slot at the interior of a house, an artist’s studio, a warehouse. And the feeling is that of being inside a submerged world, a world submerged in time, incubated in a world where the cogs of the clock have blocked and things survive the passage of time. In this sense Beninati’s images and assemblages challenge death, unearthing data from the unconscious, constructing a parallel reality that is mounted like a dream, like a merchant ship laden with memories lit up on the ocean floor. Here again we halt before a theatre of disparate objects which is the starting-point of the backlit images. We are led to use the time to gaze deeply and slowly; gradually our attention shifts from the foreground to the back, zigzagging among the things, and we see better. And the more we see the more we want to look, to discover something else, something that our gaze wandering over the installation has missed. Perhaps the most interesting thing of all is to think of the movement of our eyes, of the continual adjustment of the optical nerve which has to focus on the things, urged by our curiosity. We are training our gaze to look into another world. Like when in a museum one comes across a Dutch Still Life with all its details realistically distributed over the canvas, drawing us into the orbit of that spectacle, that Vanitas, an allegory devoted to the end of earthly things, to the falsity of feelings. Painting that represents the passage of time and displays the contrast between death in reality and the immortality of painting.
Obviously, painting could not be missing from the show. The two works present are large canvases painted with an admirable technique, with minutely sketched elements. Some areas of the composition are nuanced, and certain elements and details subside into the space of representation, faces and figures rendered almost invisible and unrecognisable, like ghosts surprised as they wander the world. Luminous cells alternate with neutral zones, and here non-being appears to dominate. We come across subtleties, lines drawn with consummate precision, elements painted in trompe l’oeil (paper adhesive tape, pages of a notebook, flowers etcetera). The image as a whole appears to generate or regenerate itself, moving from one plane of depth to another as if they were different levels of consciousness. There is no central or dominant subject to be found, but rather a constellation of signs and figures that exist within a dreamlike space-time dimension. The colour undergoes the same treatment: it may be drawn with the finest of brushstrokes to delineate racemes and arabesques that meld the decorative with the figurative, or may be spread on using a putty-knife or dribbled in such a way as to disfigure the image, which becomes hardly recognisable. It is, in a word, work that’s all about time, as well as space. In both cases Beninati conceives and experiments time and space in several dimensions: a boundless vastness, without frame or linear succession, without a central-mathematical perspective. The dimensions are disorientating and disordered compared to the norm or to daytime structures. Decorative elements morph into a forest and the intricate landscape in turn assumes the appearance of a theatre curtain raised upon reveries staged on the instructions of the unconscious. Figures and places reveal themselves by immersion and emersion, in dimensions that are always deep and distant, dark and misty, like underwater regions and sidereal abysses. The fact that this is archaeology of the unconscious is shown by the fact that the paintings feature many doors and windows, opening onto the inside and allowing beams of light or scrutinising glances to pass through. In the installations too, the viewer is invited to pause on a threshold beyond which the staged scene is like an aquarium in which the people and things live in a time and in a space of the deep and of the distant. Materialised memories, epiphanies of an experience that is not presented analytically but driven by the purest imagination and the processes of reminiscence. “Eterniday”, Cornell would have said.6
1 – The exhibition referred to is “Logo”, which was held in the Florentine gallery in Via della Scala in 2015. On that occasion Enzo Cucchi presented a series of long planks of rough wood painted with scenes dedicated to Picasso and Van Gogh. The Sicilian duo instead displayed pictorial parodies of famous paintings by Picasso. The components of Laboratorio Saccardi are Vincenzo Profeta and Marco Leone Barone.
2 – In Charles Simic, Dime-store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell, New York Review of Books, New York 2006, p. 19.
3 – Ibid., p. 20.
4 – Ibid., p. 26.
5 – Ibid., p. 57.
6 Ibid., p. 76