Matthew Benedict The Lost Island
Mai 36 Galerie, Zürich 14 March – 19 April
The sea, seen as a place for the ultimate confron-
tation between man and nature, has exerted
its pull on writers, poets and artists for centuries.
But the sea is also a space of mystery, magic,
and superstition, where man, even today,
can be at the mercy of invisible and unexplained
forces. Jacques Lacan’s understanding of man’s
death drive is clearly manifested in seafaring,
where pleasure and suffering form part
of the same experience; in these terms it is
an almost transcendental calling.
Connecticut-born Matthew Benedict,
who was raised near the New England ocean
and its long tradition of whaling, fell for
the mystique of the sea early on, and his artistic
practice has been strongly informed by it.
His fourth solo show at Mai 36, The Lost Island
– a reference to Billingsgate Island, a now
sunken lighthouse island off the coast of Cape
Cod – features paintings on wood panel
and paper as well as photographs, and focuses
on the mythology surrounding whaling and
its ‘heroic’ protagonists.
Benedict’s large-scale paintings are mostly
derived from photographs, and their style is
similar to paint-by-numbers or advertisements
from the beginning of the last century.
There is no colour-mixing or nuance; rather,
there are patches of colour placed next
to each other. This Pop- or illustration-style
aesthetic eliminates the sentimentality
often associated with imagery of the sea and
sailors, and instead offers a more humorous
take on this history. In one painting, for
example, we see a tanned, muscular man
smoking a pipe while sitting down fixing his
fishing net. It’s an iconic scene, familiar from
history and legend. Another painting depicts
a man from behind, standing on the tip of
his boat and ready to cast his net into the sea.
The position of the figure is reminiscent of
Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea
of Fog (1818); without the archetypal romantic
painter’s emotional intensity, though, it remains
a stoic reproduction.
The whaling history that Benedict thema-
tises in this show is also referenced in one
painting of a ship made directly onto a map
of Cape Cod that belonged to him as a child.
The map locates the 200-plus shipwrecks
that took place around the peninsula and
thus juxtaposes the tragic reality of whaling
– an industry that attracted immigrants from all
over the world – with its mythological construct.
And to push this tension between reality and
myth even further, a photograph taken at a Cape
Cod whaling museum shows various items
associated with the industry, some rescued from
shipwrecks. The photograph is framed in the
style of a historical museum, not of an art object,
with a grey mat and brown frame, an aesthetic
that is anathema to the art.
The other photographs in the exhibition
recreate the atmosphere and setting of nine-
teenth-century photo studios, placing characters
dressed in marine-themed costumes in staged
poses. These photographs are not only works
of art in their own right, but are also used
by Benedict as studies for his paintings. The
integration of these photographic compositions
within the paintings creates a stillness and
sobriety in the work that, rather than propa-
gating the myths, reveals the mechanisms
of their making. Benedict ultimately decon-
structs a history that is at its base the American
immigrant experience, characterised by the
mixture of pain and pleasure that led to such
spiritual subtexts. Olga Stefan