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Charles Benefiel

American, b. 1967

Blindness
2001

Ink, tea, and furniture varnish on paper
80.25 x 52 x 1 in.
Gift of the Marie Eccles Caine Foundation
2003.41

Despite the abject setting and the compromised position in which the subject of Charles Benefiel’s richly detailed drawing finds himself, he maintains a proudly erect if awkward posture. This winged man, presumably a fallen angel, is being held, naked and cornered, in a seemingly ancient prison cell. Pale and ectomorphic, he nonetheless throws his shoulders back and holds his head high. Standing on tiptoe, legs crossed at the knees, he clasps his hands over his crotch like Adam after the Fall.

Suffused with a mood of gothic dread, this life-size drawing is in fact a psychologically charged self-portrait. The visionary draftsman’s nude body, with a dead bird’s broken wings, has the head of a corpse—a mask appropriated from a vintage photograph of a murder victim. Bene el has amassed a collection of such photos, incorporating them into many of his large drawings and often fusing them with the torsos of antique dolls. Here the prisoner’s darkly narrowed eyes evince the blindness specified in the title, but the figure’s posture suggests that he might be in a trance, focusing his consciousness as a strategy of psychic escape. The stippling technique and tea-stained, varnished paper lend the image an antique appearance, like a photo from a mysterious hermetic archive.

The course of world events since this drawing’s completion has rendered it increasingly timely. It resonates disturbingly, for example, with photographs of prisoner abuse in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison; it also registers as an indictment of police brutality and a comment on injustices within the US prison system.

Despite its technical refinement, Benefiel’s work has often been contextualized as “outsider” art. As a result, much has been made of his obsessive-compulsive disorder in order to explain his oeuvre. But there’s clearly far more to his art than obsessive technique. In this drawing Benefiel masterfully evokes the timeless theme of mortal anxiety with particularly haunting effect.

Tom Patterson


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