Matthew Benedict at Alexander and Bonin - New York

Matthew Benedict at Alexander and Bonin - New YorkSkillfully if summarily painted in the manner of high-quality adventure-book illustrations, Matthew Benedict's recent work adroitly extends his turf in the crowded field of neo-Conceptual figuration. This exhibition, called "Crossing the Line," focused on an esoteric theme: a once-common maritime ceremony staged to initiate sailors crossing the equator for the first time into the Society of Neptune.

In the largest work shown, a three-panel, 15-foot-wide painting called The Mariner's Baptism, the ritual is condensed as if for a theater poster. (Indeed, two scrolling pennants at top and bottom hold out the unfulfilled promise--they are left blank--of naming the event and the actors.) We see a bucket of water being poured over a blindfolded sailor by a man on a ladder. The seated subject is about to be shaved by a jolly barber whose frock coat is emblazoned with a skull and crossbones. A figure playing Neptune reclines on a sail-covered chest, a trident in hand and a merman by his side. Davy Jones, identified by horns strapped to his head and a wicked little goatee, strikes a pose; all the gestures are broadly rhetorical, played for viewers in the back rows.

Other, smaller paintings provide sketches, again as if for dockside hoardings, of the main actors and a couple of central events: Triton wearing an eye patch and holding an eel-entwined spear, Neptunas Rex with a crown made of rope tufted to simulate thorns. The campiest image here, Glamamore As Queen Amphitrite Who Is Also Called "The Wog Queen," shows a doleful young man with curly dark hair and long eyelashes, his pert little crown draped with a handful of pearls.

Benedict's prodigious abilities as historian, draftsman, collector and trickster have been established in previous periodizing paintings and sculptures, which have ranged in subject from a 1920s motorcycle policeman to the face cards of a Tarot deck, and in style from 19th-century trompe l'oeil to 20th-century kitsch. In "Crossing the Line," he strayed across the frontier between reality and theater in several novel ways. For one thing, a relatively big painting of a moonlit tropical sea, immediately visible on entry to the gallery, was hung dramatically askew, suggesting a steeply listing ship's deck and implying that all the works on view were actually fancy props, and the gallery a kind of stage. To further muddle boundaries, Benedict provided, on a low pedestal, an assortment of objects featured in the paintings. These objects, which included a razor, telescope, rope crown, crude trident and big, fearsome knife, were mostly (and quite obviously) made for the occasion, with cardboard, paint and shelving paper, but a few (the knife, for instance) were real.

The question of what was faux and what real in this show--or, where history ended and fiction began--was deftly posed, and its answer mischievously deferred. With equal finesse Benedict entertained additional inquiry about historical and contemporary role-playing and the purposes it has served, from fun, profit and professional affiliation to psychological pain relief and personal safety.