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My grad-school officemate Chris was from western Kentucky, in the middle of nowhere but at the intersection of three separate TV markets. Though a piker in comparison, I too had watched a lot of television as a kid, so it was only natural that the entertainments we devised for ourselves when we weren’t working revolved around the tube. At our most desperate, we’d make up categories for zero-stakes rounds of $100,000 Pyramid (I confess that this pastime went the way of the dodo after I hit Chris with “Movies Without Mark Hamill” and he retaliated with “People Who Don’t Know My Aunt”). Or we’d try to outwit each other with trivia questions.
“What’s the boozingest show on TV?” Chris once asked.
“M*A*S*H?” I ventured.
“Nope. Bewitched.” At which point Chris went to the dry-erase board and started sketching the floor plan of Darrin and Samantha Stephens’ house, complete with bar. I had to concede defeat: Unlike the balky still in the Swamp, the source of countless martinis for Darrin and his boss Larry never ran dry. And as an “idea man” for advertising agency McMann and Tate, Darrin, better than Hawkeye or Trapper John, could afford to work drunk.
Mark Bennett would have appreciated Chris’ grasp of television’s designs for living. Growing up in a small Tennessee town as the repressed gay son of strict Pentacostalist parents, Bennett longed for a perfect sitcom family of his own, immersing himself in the lore of TV’s fantasyland. And as a recovering alcoholic, he certainly would have known where the Stephenses kept the sauce.
Half the work in his current Corcoran show, “Mark Bennett: TV Sets and the Suburban Dream,” honors the homes he hoped would welcome him, consisting of floor plans not only of the Stephens residence but also those of the Cleavers, the Petries, the Bradys, et al. The blueprint-style pencil-and-ink drawings are precise enough (most are scaled at one-quarter inch to one foot) to serve as buildable plans. But Bennett melds the role of architect with that of interior decorator by including all furniture and noting such details as the heap of dirty clothes in the corner of Oscar Madison’s bedroom and the “elephant foot filled with popcorn” in the living room of Gomez and Morticia Addams.
Although its genesis is in sketches the 40-ish Bennett did as a child, the blueprint series is rooted in a difficult period during which he was married but struggling with his homosexuality, getting “through life doing these drawings and drinking.” By the time he got sober, in 1989, Bennett says, “I had a hole in my stomach.” He doesn’t appear to be exaggerating when he says an “addiction to television” prevented him from seeking treatment, as he recalls an exchange with his doctor:
“She said, ‘You need to go get help.’
“And I said, ‘I can’t. I watch Dick Van Dyke reruns every night.’
“‘Can’t you tape them?’
“‘No. I have to watch them as they come on.’
“‘Haven’t you seen them before?’
“‘I’ve seen them a thousand times before. I don’t want any surprises in my life.’”
This obsessiveness surfaced in his oddly principled insistence that his drawings be made without the assistance of videotape, a practice that has sometimes led to errors. “VCR, in my opinion, is cheating,” he testifies. “Now, I could refer to VCR if there was something that someone asked me to do, but [not] when I have a passion for doing the drawings themselves. When that dresser got put in The Honeymooners’ apartment, I’m sure that the doorbell rang or I had to go to the bathroom and I didn’t get it right. I mean, that’s probably what really happened, and these are my interpretations. Someone said, ‘You know that there’s no guest room in the Family Affair apartment,’ and I said, ‘There is in mine.’ They go, ‘How can that be?’ And I said, ‘There is one in mine, because I say there is.’”
Such mistakes as the misplacement of Ralph and Alice Kramden’s dresser or the misspelling of the Stephenses’ surname don’t overly concern him; in a way, they merely record intrusions of flawed actuality into Bennett’s ideal fantasy life. Besides, the artist’s TV Sets, as the title of the book that collects the drawings calls them, aren’t the meticulous recreations of a captious fanboy or the scrupulous project of a niche postmodernist but recollections of the fictional spaces Bennett’s neuroses forced him to inhabit.
In the other series of work displayed at the Corcoran, a group of collages titled The Effect of Fords on Barbara, Bennett’s alter egos move front and center, taking the form of a sequence of glamorous Sunset-style suburbanites all named after Barbara Billingsley. The various Barbaras are shown in a variety of car-obsessed comic scenarios, press-type dialogue floating in the sky above them. Lounging in the front yard, one Barbara waves off her boyfriend with a handful of automobile brochures, saying, “Go sailing without me, Biff. I’ve got better things to do.”
The irony of being psychologically bound by a supposedly liberating possession, a “transporting” one, even, isn’t lost on Bennett. He speaks of his attachment to a trouble-prone 1964 Thunderbird that he was reluctant to rid himself of even after his doctor observed, “I think you need a car that can get you to and from therapy.”
Curator Terrie Sultan links the two visually disparate series by noting that the Barbaras constitute Bennett’s “own sitcom….He wrote the narrative, he made up the stories, he cast it, and he did the set designshe did everythingand you get to see it from one episode to the next…” She observes that the Barbaras lay out a “nonsequential narrative, so that you have this idea of this character in this position in this society moving from one story to the next….They’re little vignettes that don’t necessarily add up to one long story, but it does in the end add up to a lifewhich is pretty much the way we live,” not to mention the way TV characters live, as they pass from one contrived “situation” to another.
Bennett says he plans to execute 35 more collages, bringing the total to an arbitrarybut apparently preordained137 pieces. He also says he has preparatory drawings that will enable him to do blueprints of Batman’s Wayne Manor and the Mitchells’ house from Dennis the Menace, but that after that, he’ll call it quits. He’s not interested in moving into the realm of later, more naturalistic shows (“Roseanne is a very funny show,” he says, “but [the Conners’] living room is not one that you would aspire to.”) Instead he’ll move on to a series of Concentration-inspired rebus boards, milking his TV obsession even while overcoming it. “When I got through all this work,” he says, gesturing toward the sitcom floor plans, “I turned the television off, and it’s been about three yearstelevision-free.”
Christopher Ford, Bennett’s dealer with the Mark Moore Gallery, discovered Bennett’s work hanging in a bar in Hollywood (Bennett’s Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor had suggested the show as a way for the artist to pay off his Visa bill). Ford quickly discovered that Bennett’s floor plans attracted a wide range of viewers, not all of them flush with cash. When 10 of the “TV Sets” were reproduced as limited-edition lithographs, Ford got the chance to analyze the demographics of Bennett’s appeal, examining the identification between purchaser and character that accounted for “the sociological breakdown of who bought what.”
“[With] young married couples, The Dick Van Dyke Showthe Petrieswas the first one to sell out,” Ford says. “A lot of women bought Gilligan’s Island. I guess it’s that Mary Ann and Ginger thing….Queens bought Bewitched, hands down….It makes sense on a number of levels….It was the most happily dysfunctional family on television. And Endora’s picture is next to the word “dyke” in the dictionary…Uncle Arthur, Doctor Bombayhello!…People from San Francisco almost exclusively bought The Addams Family, which makes sense, because they all live in Victorian houses, the women look like Morticia, and the men look like Fester.”
By fixating on iconography that happens to be familiar to almost everybody, Bennett has created that rare body of personally therapeutic work that communicates clearly to a wide audience. But just as viewers’ outlooks on Bennett’s sitcom sources are likely to differ from the artist’s tortured takes on them, our reactions to his work won’t necessarily jibe with his original perceptions. For Bennett, the classic ’50s and ’60s sitcoms held out an unattainable ideal. They established standards of “normalcy” that enveloped all who dwelled in their pristine worlds. Wishing himself into those “situations” constituted a form of self-annihilation.
The flipside of being confronted only with problems that can be solved in 22 minutes, though, is that those problems start to seem excruciatingly avoidable. Who among us doesn’t yearn to scratch the familiar sitcom itch of awkward misunderstanding? On a simplistic moral level, who doesn’t know how to keep Fred Flintstone out of trouble? Just don’t lie to Wilma, don’t deceive your boss, and don’tdon’t!get the bronto ribs.
Bewitched is a better example still. Who hasn’t thought Darrin a fool? If he could just come to grips with his fears of appearing abnormal (here’s where Ford’s queens come in) he could take full advantage of being married to a gorgeous woman whose powers are godlike. (I’ll admit to having fantasized about traveling the globe at the twitch of Elizabeth Montgomery’s noselunching in Bangkok, dining in Paris, sleeping on the pampas. Sure, you could accomplish the same with Star Trek’s transporter, but science is much less sexy than witchcraft.) But instead, he insists on Samantha doing the housework “honestly,” as she stays cooped up at 1164 Morning Glory Circle in ho-hum Patterson, N.Y.
For Bennett, as well as for their fictional occupants, sitcom homes were prisonsalbeit prisons where they belongedbut for us, they were cells from which we launched plans of escape. The best sitcoms understood that for fantasy to be most effective it has to remain unattainable to the characters. Only disappointment could follow the words of Mr. Roarke, were he to turn to Tattoo and say, “That is Samantha Stephens, and her fantasy is…” CP