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Standing in front of Charles Beneke’s sculptural installation Specter at the Akron Art Museum, I can’t help but search for a thought bubble. And that reflex is not just because the Lichtenstein-like dots of half-tone paint on Tyvek call to mind Pop art prints, nor does it remove the artwork from the category of high art into which it fits. It’s also because this arresting installation confronts us out-loud in a hands-to-mouth yell that seems to rip off the wall and mutate into a whispering vortex; it makes me feel like I have to check myself and verify I’m still breathing. Specter is a massive installation that turns prints into sculpture while underscoring art as activism. It marries antique and modern with success that isn’t cliché or overreaching. It is an experiential work created by an artist whose global travels and careful observations of lifestyle habits culminate in a mix of techniques and materials that come together as both an omen and a mirror.
Specter isn’t just about climate change, according to Beneke. It’s also about our habits of living on this planet, our waste, the idling of cars, our Amazon shopping habits, our culture of consumption and our choice of comfort over responsibility. And so Beneke, a printmaker by trade (also a lecturer and professor of printmaking at the University of Akron) took to the extreme with this monumental artwork: one-thousand feet of wallpaper (made by Beneke himself) printed on Tyvek and connected with multiple woodcut prints reinforce this marriage of life and art—the Earth’s massive population exponentially wasting, living and producing and the fine art of printmaking–creating multiples on paper (and now Tyvek).
Beneke mixes contemporaneity and tradition—a temporal duality that is part of the backbone of Specter, lending it a deep sense of credibility. An image of a small plant adopted from Albrecht Dürer’s engravings (including but not limited to The Men’s Bathhouse, 1498, and St. Eustace, 1500) repeats throughout Specter—beginning with the lush green pastiche of multi-scale vegetation in its “start” position on the left and culminating in a smoky, soft black at the mouth-like projection hovering above the gallery floor, prickly and finger-like, heeding and grabbing and coughing all at once. Dürer is clearly one of Beneke’s printmaking heroes, and so his influence in this work stands out, serving to ground Specter, associating it with the art historical canon in a way that speaks to the long tradition of printmaking. It’s also akin to a Chinese hand scroll in large format that then turns into something of a Calder stabile. When our eyes move across the oil rigs and diagrams of rising atmospheric carbon the wallpaper begins to scream at you in bright hazard orange before the forms of the prevailing wind patterns of Northeastern Ohio take flight off the wall. Dürer’s plant form reappears as it mixes with pearlescent clouds of different sizes and tones, reminiscent of Piero Fornasetti-like wallpaper and, if whiter and adapted to other contexts, also potentially mistaken as part of a stunning skyscape. In the end, Dürer’s plant emerges like teeth in a section calling to mind images of the Last Judgement at the Camposanto in Pisa. It’s scary. It’s alarming. Specter’s “mouth” takes in and spews out and we can only hope that this arresting, gargantuan artwork will cause us to take pause, change our ways. Maybe we can reverse course and head back toward the greener, cleaner pastures of the past.
When I interviewed Beneke in front of and underneath Specter, I asked him what would become of it after its time in the Akron Art Museum was over. He isn’t entirely sure the Tyvek will come off cleanly. He isn’t sure what its next life will be, but he will take off all its tape, reuse the shimmering silver clouds, and send what he can salvage to be recycled. Also a bookmaker, Beneke entertained the possibility of using some of the larger prints in bookmaking projects. Visitors are invited to take small parts of the artwork home with them, trading carbon for art, he said. These small treasures are displayed on shelves he designed and constructed next to a podium with a book he made for visitor comments.
I looked for a signature on Specter. There isn’t one. No Dürer-like monogram stamp. This artwork was collaborative, reminiscent of a Renaissance workshop. Beneke had students and museum staff assisting him in its assembly. In a way its lack of signature gives us all some ownership, which both excites and incriminates the viewer. Our collaborative habits were the impetus for its message and existence, but our collective part makes us all responsible for whatever becomes the last word in Beneke’s global story.
Tiffany Elena Washington, PhD, is an art historian specializing in American art history of the 1930s and 40s. She lectures, writes and teaches undergraduate art history part-time as an adjunct senior lecturer. View more articles by Tiffany Elena Washington.