"Manfredi Beninati: The Painter of Dreamland"
By Laura Barreca
Manfredi Beninati’s painting is informed by cinema, photography and literature and, through it, he shows us the world of personal memory. Historically speaking, the artist’s paintings, installations and sculptures refer to the so-called “theatricalization” of visual arts, developed into international artistic production during the last 50 years. Artists such as Robert Wilson, Vito Acconci and Tadeusz Kantor used to avail themselves of theatrical scenes for their performances. They used real sets, whose fundamental elements like light, architecture and scenery also contributed greatly to the development of contemporary figurative painting.
Moreover, this Sicilian artist’s work is enriched by his experience as an assistant to important Italian directors such as Damiano Damiani and Giuseppe Tornatore in the early 90s. Beninati knows well how to use a movie camera and how to create images for the screen, transposing in his paintings and installations the visual equivalent of moving images. Through his cinematic perception, Beninati prefers frontal views and classic perspectives, building stages toward which the audience has only one observation point, just like in theatres or cinemas.
“Taking notes for a dream that begins in the afternoon and continues through the night (and is not canceled out on awakening) or waking up on a beach in the scorching sun” for instance, which was an installation realized for the Italian Pavillion at the 51st Venice Biennale, was the recreation of an elegantly furnished 18th century boudoir, only visible from a certain angle and through a glass door, symbolically representing the boundary between dream and reality. The separation between the artist’s world and the audience and between the transitional present and the past belongs to a private or imaginary memory.
The places represented by Beninati are the result of mixing figurative content with abstraction—loaded with symbolisms and always balanced between a real and a surrealistic dimension. These works stand between the memory of a past event and the representation of its oblivion. Another example is a recent work at Arcos Museum in Benevento in which the artist realized 12 Minutes of Self-Inflicted Exile, an installation that, as a dreamlike vision, could only be seen through a space hidden amongst the leaves of some plants.
Beninati’s artworks are always conceived with a narrative aptitude that recalls literary and cinematographic references, such as the visionary novels by Italo Calvino, the descriptions of Il Gattopardo’s sumptuous palazzo by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, and the fabulous mood of Luchino Visconti’s movies. In the same way, a visionary richness, somehow folkloristic, can be perceived; a richness that follows the decorations of Baroque style and the intense colors of Sicilian almond-paste pastry. So it is likely to find in a room space ships colored like “cassata,” shaped as Chinese tiny umbrellas, atomic mushrooms or aurora borealis that glows in the sky like the refractions of a prism.
Several minute elements, like little shrubs in bloom, show the intense care for details of the Flemish tradition. Even though it is not just an evocative style, there is a mimetic imitation of the late nineteenth century Symbolist painting, because in Beninati’s work distance and time exist. They are physical phenomena that define the existing space between two points and the facts following one another, or even the separation between an event that belongs to the past and the moment in which it is portrayed.
The artist stands in the middle of this temporal extension, representing a precise slot, a snapshot of the camera or the frame of a film. In this sense, even though the pictorial technique reveals a hyper-realistic attitude, Beninati’s works don’t claim to depict anything exactly as it was, but rather suggest a poetic atmosphere. Because the external observation point offers a blurry view of the place, an image of a person is rooted in a sort of a dreamland.
The artist once stated that, “In my paintings (as well as my other works), I deal with what I know the best, that is my vision of the world, the things that surround me, my memory. I speak of the distance that separates us from the things we see as well as the things that inhabit this distance and which, by nature, I tend to ignore. In other words, I paint and I draw anything found in my range of vision. Then I work to immerse it into the world where, it seems to me, this thing belongs. I try to find the natural balance of these things and this practice is sometimes very tiring. Often, I would even say almost always, I paint subjects from photographs or drawings with which I am very familiar (obviously, these are a lot of images from my childhood and adolescence).”
Time, as a main theme of his work, is also present in the recent show Flavio and Palermo (in the summer) at James Cohan Gallery, dedicated to the artist’s brother, Flavio. The exhibition includes the installation Fruits from an Ocean Nearby, the recreation of a psychologist’s room with a sandcastle on a desk, a symbol of the complexity of human desire and its own weakness, as in the nature of things. Under a dirty glass casket a spray-foam sculpture, surrounded by bucolic elements, evokes the style of Medardo Rosso, who used “to sculpt with the light.” A series of colored oils on canvas, as Untitled (Cerese), and Untitled (Pirrina” are the expression of this typical artist’s nostalgic style.
Manfredi Beninati was born in Palermo in 1970, where he lives and works. After receiving high marks in Classical studies, he entered at the University of Palermo Law School and in the early 90s he began to study film at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome. In 1992 he moved to London working as an artist in several studios squats in the East End. In 2002 he returned to Italy where, in 2005, his work was selected to for the 51st Venice Biennale in the Italian Pavillion. Beninati was recently awarded the Rome Prize by the American Academy in Rome.