- Associated Press - Sunday, April 18, 2021

FREDERICK, Md. (AP) - Talk to Christian Benefiel for any length of time, and it becomes apparent that he’s an abstract thinker who can get lost in contemplation.

His ideas undoubtedly get transferred to his art work.

His sculptures, both permanent and semi-permanent, indoor and outdoor, made from wood and bronze cast iron, have this same quality of mind, provoking deep thought and speculation about the world around us.

His installation “Trying to make Aurica without breaking Pangea,” for example, on exhibit at the Frederick Arts Council’s Pop-Up Gallery through May 1, makes manifest his ideas about the systems and structures in which we live, as well as the impermanent nature of all things.

On April 17, he gave a virtual artist talk to discuss his work, which was live-streamed via the Frederick Arts Council’s Facebook page.

His installation at the FAC gallery is composed of several hundred wooden blocks that are held together not with glue or nails but through architectural manipulation, utilizing tension and specific angles. He typically designs sculptures like this one by first using computer software to determine how the pieces will fit together and then constructs the piece onsite, as was the case at the FAC gallery.

“In a lot of cases,” Benefiel said, “I’m not sure the design is gonna work until it’s actually installed in the gallery.”

He thinks of these pieces as “cooperative structures,” physical models of systems found throughout nature and civilization.

“It’s my interpretation of a system and how systems and networks operate,” he explained. “Individual bees and ants aren’t as vital, in a lot of cases, as the whole hive or colony. They’re sacrificial, in a sense. The colony has to survive. The individual pieces are not as important as all the pieces together.”

His “Trying to make Aurica without breaking Pangea” piece takes up the entirety of the small gallery space downtown and can be viewed daytime or night through the gallery window, as it is lit with white and violet lighting. Like his other pieces, he designed it to be experiential, for people to stand next to it - and nearly inside of it - and see how their physical bodies fit into the piece and the space. It’s designed so people can physically hang out in the middle of the sculpture - and maybe meditate on how they, too, are comprised of a set of systems.

“I think of myself as being a combination of systems,” Benefiel explained. “Like thoughts, opinions and emotions define a personality, as one example. I’m this stacked set of systems and also plugged into all these different networks - as a father, an educator, a teacher, a member of a team. I’m ingrained in all these collaborative things.

“I started making this work based on the idea that people were going on about ‘this system is broken’ and ‘that system is broken’ - healthcare, the election, education, social media and whatever else,” he went on. “I started to think about that as the system is broken for me the user, but it may be working really well for me the commodity or me the product. It’s just a matter of context. A lot of things are complex or confusing on the surface, because it’s not necessarily clear what the function or purpose of that network is. Am I the end product or the cog in a machine or a speck of dust floating on the rocks?”

Each site-specific piece also carries a finite lifespan - the duration of the exhibit - as there is a finite lifespan to everything, even something as seemingly solid as the continents across Earth, hence the installation title. They are shifting and reforming, from Pangea to Aurica.

When Benefiel began work on Civil War monuments in 2014, he realized that “permanence inevitably leads to obsolescence,” as he put it, which got him thinking about the permanence and impermanence of his own work.

The sculptor lived in Keedysville for several years and now splits his time between the Eastern Shore and Shepherdstown, West Virginia, where he teaches art at Shepherd University. He’s been involved with the Frederick-area art scene for several years, most recently as a juror in fall 2020 for FAC’s public art project in Brunswick, the town’s gateway arches.

A closing reception for “Trying to Make Aurica Without Breaking Pangea” is unlikely, due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Typically, Benefiel hosts a closing reception rather than an opening event and allows guests to deconstruct the sculpture and take pieces home with them.

“It’s like a game of pick-up sticks,” Benefiel said. “No one owns it, but everyone can own a piece of it.”

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