Death in the details

It’s not unusual for an artist to be deeply inspired by a tragedy that happens halfway around the world.

But the resulting work can be a miserable failure.

Making art about foreign cultures and experiences isn’t easy; the specter of “otherness” sometimes rears its ugly head, and good intentions go down in flames. And though it’s not necessarily doomed from the outset, art of this kind often feels opportunistic.

Dusty Benedict has been part of the local art scene since coming to teach at Warren Wilson College in 1979. He’s widely considered a generous, sensitive person — no one who knows him would doubt he was affected by the tragic August 2000 accident involving the Kursk nuclear submarine, in which 118 Russian sailors died, slowly, in the Barents Sea.

The surprise came with the discovery that this quiet, unassuming art professor had memorialized these sailors because he knew, firsthand, how they had suffered. To those of us whose only information about submarines and Navy divers comes by way of Hollywood, the odds of Dusty Benedict’s being a Navy diver seem about as likely as George W. Bush’s being invited to join MENSA. Clearly, Benedict doesn’t fit the stereotype — but in fact, he spent three-and-a-half years in the Navy on submarine duty.

In 2001, Benedict exhibited 12 small pieces based on the Kursk sailors. The next year, he took a sabbatical and, still haunted by the fate of these men, began a new series. His Kursk Requiem: Looking Death in the Face is a multilayered body of work consisting of 118 hinged diptychs painted on poplar wood. The right side of each work bears the name of one of the sailors — in the Russian Cyrillic alphabet at the top, and in English at the bottom. Between the names is a structured space containing 118 calligraphic marks (one for each sailor). On every panel, a blue dot on one of the marks corresponds to a number stamped militarily into the back of the wood.

Each dot and number refer to a specific individual, but Benedict took great care to free the sailors from any hint of hierarchy. “Now,” he comments, “they are all the same.”

The men’s graves — dug before the bodies were even recovered — are represented by Benedict as black lines surrounding painted-limestone tiles embedded in the wood.

The diptychs’ overall structure recalls the religious icons found in Russian churches and homes — but pieces of detritus from the sea, still visible in the limestone, add a personal layer of pathos to the story. Benedict encrusts the limestone with two coats of wax: the first one hot (to sink deeply into the surface), the second cold (to seal the stone).

Benedict says Requiem was done in a week — and the small pieces carry more visual weight than they should, given their size and the speed of their execution. In some panels, text creeps through the layers of paint; colors and color combinations are as varied as these men’s lives must have been.

The paintings are, in short, exquisite. Many of these abstract works could easily stand alone — no icon, no grave, no story … just paint beautifully applied to a surface.

But the artist’s dream, he says, is to show the work in Russia — and give each panel to the family of the dead son, husband or friend for whom it stands. For this ex-sailor, art for art’s sake is clearly not enough.

Dusty Benedict’s Kursk Requiem: Looking Death in the Face shows at Warren Wilson College’s Elizabeth Holden Gallery through Friday, Nov. 7. Gallery hours are Monday through Friday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m., Sundays 1-4 p.m. For more information, call 771-3020.

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