Painter provokes with naked precision

There is no question but that Martin Beck, 38, whose social conscience grew up with him about 20 blocks from the famous suburban Love Canal eco-disaster in Niagara Falls, N.Y., is out to shock.

Not long after moving from Manhattan to Jersey City three years ago, in a one-man exhibition at the Jersey City Museum, Beck showed a large oil called "Big Wheel" that depicted scenes of 1960s social conflict, including police beating African-American protesters and German shepherds savaging a black man. The museum had to counsel viewers on the "correct" meaning of the painting.

During his second Jersey City one-man show (last October, sponsored by Consolidated Arts), passersby complained that two very different works with the same name, "Noli Me Tangere" ("Don't Touch Me"), were obscene. They demanded the gallery place the works in a back room and show them only on request. The gallery continued to show the paintings openly.

Beck is now showing new work at the Chamot Gallery, on the fourth floor of the artists' loft building at 111 First St. in Jersey City, under the title "Modern Romance." The title is ironic, and Beck is clearly not chastened by experience.

Both "Noli Me Tangere" paintings are here, along with many other nudes and murkily disturbing works like "Myoclonus," in which middle-aged nudes carry out obscure rituals.

The social themes of much of Beck's work can be construed as provocative, but it is his style that most provokes gallery goers. He paints in a traditional, lush naturalism that is almost illustrational in its detail, a style originally developed to glorify the human form. Beck's naked people often seem entirely too convincing for contemporary comfort.

In the Jersey City Museum show two years ago he exhibited large canvasses depicting superficially all-American events -- parades and picnics, mostly -- that pilloried his vision of the racist and/or boorish underpinnings of white America.

The 14 pastels and six oils now in the Chamot Gallery are definitely a departure from Beck's earlier, more openly parodistic style, which appears here full-blown only in the oil "Noli Me Tangere."

Crowded with figures of children appearing to play with guns or clubs, the work is an urban nightmare of petty violence. Each character, even down to the leg-less man in wheelchair who seems to be annoying a little baby, is painted with knotty precision.

For the most part, the cartoony and easily read narratives in Beck's paintings are gone. In "Yellow Bride," "Palimpsest 3," "Novitiate" and many other smaller-format pastels, the political is made personal, the themes more about social strictures on the individual than violence or social conflict.

The photo-based technique is what draws you in -- luscious and recognizable. Beck paints like a Romantic illustrator, laying pearly flesh over scumbled brown-red or brown-orange backgrounds, so the green or blue highlights jump.

The problem with Beck's style is it is too beautiful. The elegant simplifications of the human form, picked out with Beck's layered color, is reminiscent of the 19th-century Munich school, a style conceived to ennoble the human form and the very atmosphere it walks through. Beck crosses this up with his ugly folks and perverse demi-narratives. It is just the unpredictability of beauty and disgust mixing that arrests the viewer -- and sometimes makes him or her mad as a wet hen. "I've always thought that abstraction was sort of beyond reproach," Beck says. "You put it on a wall and you either like it or you don't, but it does not do something that strongly affects people's lives.

"I've never wanted to paint any other way than this."

Palimpsest 1, 2001

Falling Bodies III, 2001

Yellow Bride, 2001

Myoclonus, 2000

Black Ties, 2000

Dead Past, 2000

Ghost Dog, 2000