Charles Benefiel
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  • Charles Benefiel (b. 1967)
  • New Mexico
  • c. 2001
  • Ink on paper
  • 51 x 35 in.
  • American Folk Art Museum, gift of American Primitive Gallery and Aarne Anton, 2005.19.1
  • Charles Benefiel created the Random Numeric Repeater drawings in 2000 and 2001 while living in New York City and New Mexico. Urged on by his sense of futility about the reductive and contemporary habit of using numbers—on passports, Social Security cards, driver’s licenses, electric bills, and credit card accounts—as a source of one’s identity, Benefiel has designed a new language, a “dumb language,” of randomly repeated symbols. In this system, dots, circles, and dashes replace the numbers and sounds that serve as code in our technology-driven society. The artist’s drawings attack the way in which consumer society employs numbers as the ultimate form of dialogue between people and the apathetic manner in which we accept and even embrace this aspect of modern life. 

    Taking the numerical sequence of one through ten in most of the Random Numeric Repeater drawings—one through one hundred in some of the larger drawings—Benefiel marries both a symbol and a sound to each number. For example, one equals a dot equals the sound “ba”; four equals a circle equals the sound “da”; or zero equals a solid circle equals the sound “na.” Applying these codes with their new meanings and new sounds, he starts to draw. During this application, Benefiel is reciting the sounds and counting the numbers of his invented “dumb language,” making the process a musical experience, a visual experience, and a mathematical equation. This three-tiered artistic process is overly complex, though the outcome appears overtly simple and minimal. For Benefiel, this all-consuming method creates order for the artist and is essential to his art-making and to his lifestyle.

    A doctor diagnosed Benefiel with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) when he was 30 years old. Over the past decade, the artist has figured out how to control OCD (with medical oversight) by making art that simultaneously engages his mind mathematically, philosophically, physically, and artistically. The process of organizing symbols and counting equations control his at times erratic mind. He believes that this process deters his illness and attributes his current state to the healing dimensions of art-making.

    These linguistic-game works are more economical and reductive in their finished state than are the two other series of drawings for which the artist is well-known. These drawings are composed of tiny “movements”—small forms made by deliberately diminutive actions that demand a meditative, ritualistic approach by the artist. He has tapped into a subdued and refined way of drawing by creating these visual mantras and embodying them with a spiritual quality; they bring to mind Jonathan Borofsky’s number drawings from the 1960s as well as Agnes Martin’s grid paintings, both of which were described by their makers as healing work and spiritual work.
  • Photo by Gavin Ashworth