Peter Benedetti never planned to make a deck of tarot cards. Instead, you might argue, the cards found him.
“It’s not something I would normally do,” says the Brooklyn-based artist, who points to the abstract expressionist influence on the style of his inventive drawings and paintings.
But a few years ago, during his daily research and quest for inspiration, he came across a tarot card.
“I only expected to do one, but I wound up putting it out into the world and people responded,” he says. “I got obsessed and did the whole deck.”
“A normal deck has 78 cards, and mine has 80 cards. Those extra two are wild cards that don’t mean anything. They just throw the viewer off,” he says. “People have described them as dark but whimsical.”
Allowing subconscious impulse to drive is a hallmark of Benedetti’s work. “I create a lot of different things. It’s fluid, stream of consciousness work,” he says. “When you’re doing this kind of art, you’re reacting. You react to what’s happening on the canvas and the paper. You may have an idea but it evolves into something else.”
For example, he came across a trove of drawings done by his girlfriend when she was just a child. She planned to throw them away.
“I thought they were amazing and wanted to collaborate with them,” he explains. “The innocence but evolved-ness [of child drawings] speak to me in the same way abstract expression does.”
Using construction paper and child’s scrawl as a canvas, he springboarded off oversized flowers, geometric houses and floating heads with stick arms, layering on detailed drawings of devils, deities and disturbing words in red and black and blue. (Think: “Brutal Fucking Murder” and “A Message to a Sick Society.”)
“I’m generally interested in the darker side of things,” says Benedetti, whose collaborative child drawings—as well as his Divine Will tarot project and assorted paintings and drawings—are currently on display at Second Street Gallery, along with artist Paul Brainard’s “My Body is a Grave.” (In a statement about his show, Brainard describes his intentional juxtaposition of puritan gravestones against pornography and homogenized culture as a means to illustrate “the void of substance in everyday life.”)
“Solve et Coagula,” the title of Benedetti’s exhibition, means “dissolve and concentrate.” It’s a motto, drawn from alchemy, that underscores Benedetti’s process: the collaborative interplay of the artist’s own subconscious with references to horror movies, the occult and stuff that “makes people uncomfortable”—like tarot.
“In my mind, there’s a stigma surrounding [tarot], like it’s some kind of voodoo that goes on. I envision it as something that scares people,” he says—and that appealed to him.
Benedetti spent two years creating his Divine Will tarot project, designing the cards one at a time on his computer using a limited palette: black, white and red.
“As I was designing the deck, I took a trip to Prague, which is an amazing place with gothic architecture and sculpture and dark-looking statues,” he says. “The King of Swords was inspired by a sculpture that I saw there.”
Others riff on Benedetti’s art history studies, referencing modern prints and Renaissance paintings, including Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgment.” The King of Wands card was inspired by a horror movie poster featuring a portrait of Christopher Lee.
The artist’s interpretation of tarot has deepened considerably since he began the project. “Now I know about the history of [the tarot] and what it actually means,” he says. “In general, the first card in the deck is the fool. Most people would describe it as the fool’s journey. It’s the cycle of life. You start off not knowing anything, and as you get older and travel on your path, you learn things as you go. Depending on how the cards fall, it may or may not tell you something about yourself and what you should or shouldn’t be doing.”
Now that he’s finished his first deck, Benedetti plans to create another one.
Small wonder, given his affinity for following streams of personal experience and exploring whatever consciousness might arise. In the end, tarot cards might not be so unexpected a subject after all.
You might say it was always in the cards.
The title for Peter Benedetti’s tarot deck, Divine Will, sprang from his discovery of Aleister Crowley, a 20th-century occultist who formed a religious philosophy called Thelema.
“The premise [of Thelema] was to follow your will in life,” Benedetti says. “You are your own god, and you decide your own destiny. I thought of the phrase divine will because the divine in yourself is basically your will, and it’s how you create your own future.” The Beatles, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin and Ozzy Osbourne have all made references to Crowley on their albums.