Self-portraits are often some of the most penetrating and dynamic pieces an artist produces. From those of Dürer, microscopically detailed, to those of Van Gogh, limned in hypnotic impasto, to those of Francis Bacon, unsettling and transgressive — self-portraits have long provided insight into an artist’s psyche. This holds true for John Benicewicz, whose introspective “Self-portrait,” along with nine other pieces, is currently featured beside the work of New Haven sculptor Robert Taplin in the Fred Giampietro Gallery’s latest exhibition.
Open until Oct. 15, the show brings together the work of two artists who explore the human form in divergent ways. Benicewicz conjures faces and bodies from his subconscious and scrawls them in paint, creating intimate works loaded with great personal meaning. In contrast, Taplin uses sculpture to explore the role of the outsider in postmodern society. His work revels in the ridiculous, provoking laughter, sympathy, disgust and, ultimately, reflection.
Benicewicz’s paintings are often cerebral, the brushstrokes dabbed across the canvases intuitively, sweeping in large swathes of unbounded color. In “The Brightest Door That Ever Opened,” Benicewicz presents a triptych of memory drawn from his unconscious. Its center panel contains ghostly figures rendered in a delicate, buttery white. This ephemerality contrasts with the sienna background’s overwhelming solidity and permanence. Similarly, the painting “Return” features bright spaces of almost pure color that recall the vibrancy of Matisse’s cutouts. Nude beige figures stroll and lounge, their earthy forms juxtaposed with the everlasting blue and deep red that surround them. Benicewicz is a master of summoning the human figure without so much as explicitly depicting an individual face.
Taplin, on the other hand, employs a far more naturalistic style in his three-dimensional figures, which depict a single recurring character. Affectionately named Punch, the protagonist of Taplin’s work is an absurd jester derived from a stock character of 17th century Italian puppetry. Nearly all the Punch sculptures are made of a lucid, unblemished cast resin. Yet the behavior they depict is far messier. Punch is, at turns, exploding a top hat, being arrested while crossing the border and making a public confession before a podium replete with microphones. A sardonic figure, Punch personifies satire. He both mocks and is mocked, subverting everything from the political apology to the nuclear family, while remaining an outsider, a fool to be laughed at. Briefly, though, in “Punch Pops the Weasel,” Punch ascends, rising from a toy box, his apotheosis frozen in time. However, the viewer must realize that once Punch returns to the ground, he will resume his role as ribald joker, regarded with amusement and disdain.
Both artists offer several works that are as potent and fascinating as “Punch Pops the Weasel,” but “Self-portrait” leaves the deepest impression. Benicewicz’s most recent painting, it is wholly nonrepresentational, despite its figural title. Painted on a tall rectangle of framed linen, its forms are stretched in a style reminiscent of El Greco’s painfully prolonged figures. Here, the shapes come in varying hues of yellow, gold, ochre, orange and sickly green, with black lending dimensionality and foreboding. All this lingers above and melds with the haze of a blue background that nicely offsets the warmth at the fore. The outermost forms curl like knee bones, while the rest of the painting appears both floral and insectoid. Everything, though, converges in the center of “Self-portrait,” which swirls in a muddle of curt, powerful brushstrokes simultaneously evocative of insect antennae, the skeleton of the hand and fingers, the stripes of a bee and the seedy center of a sunflower.
Clearly, “Self-portrait” revels in ambiguity. But it also conveys an unfolding, a sort of dissection, with the self-portrait acting as autopsy. This postmortem presents the blurred anxieties of the artist, a self-image that is grotesque and moribund. Its abstraction reveals far more than a naturalistic self-portrait ever could. It is compelling, frightening, baffling and, above all, honest. Benicewicz bares himself to the viewer in depths of yellow, black and blue.
Such vulnerability inherent to public display recurs throughout the exhibition. Taplin’s Punch endures ridicule, while Benicewicz exposes memories within a personal mythology. Both risk the viewer’s dismissal. Accordingly, the works variously impress and occasionally disappoint, but their central theme — the exposure that occurs at the intersection of the private and the public — appears most compellingly in “Self-portrait,” a work of terrible and undeniable beauty.