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It's a Gift, 1993
Contemporary Arts Center
Martin Beck's expansive figurative paintings are populated by mischievous characters who laugh and cavort in lush, if somewhat worn, settings. Beck's people (and there are sometimes as many as 60 in one painting) always appear to be aware of the viewer, and ham it up accordingly. Drawing on multiple sources, the paintings are extremely complex. Beck's paint handling and color selection recall the work of Gustave Courbet. Indeed he employs the picture-within-the-picture found in Courbet's The Painter's Studio. In spirit, however, the paintings take on some of the quality of Max Beckmann's frenzied complex triptychs. The characters in his paintings are conjured from history (Charles Lindbergh, George Marshall), pop culture (Ginger Rogers, Joey Buttafuoco), his imagination, and even his circle of friends. All intermingle in a frantic and seedy atmosphere that verges on chaos.
Each painting reads like a cultural detective novel. Nearly 1O feet long, Kinship is a haunting portrayal of the dangers of both group mentality and deviant behavior. A group of people and animals mingles in a woodland clearing; a grove of birches forms the background and creates a rhythmic pattern reminiscent of the glorious swordplay in Paolo Uccello's The Battle of San Romano. On one edge of the painting, two boys mock a frantic pig that attempts to stand on its hind legs. On the opposite edge Dusko Tadic (a Serbian war criminal) holds a meat cleaver, thereby creating a bizarre set of "bookends" for the painting. Ducks waddle through the crowd, Josef Goebbels leads a dancing bear, and a goat awkwardly shuffles on its hind legs. In the center of the crowd five people hold hands in a sort of mocking maypole dance. They circle the figure of Baldur von Schirach, mastermind of Germany's Hitler Youth. He clutches to himself a child who, understandably, looks terrified. The scene feels ominous and paganistic, the gaiety forced.
Interestingly, Heritage, one of the smaller, less ambitious paintings in the exhibition, is one of the most potent and satisfying. An extended family sits before a Christmas tree in a typical holiday pose. A window gives us a partial glimpse of a Northern working-class neighborhood. Nine figures in all represent three generations. Since Beck limits the number of figures in the painting, he is able to imbue each with a fascinating personality Two older men display the kind of overly exuberant expressions one sees pasted on faces at family reunions. A 30-something couple entwine in a happy embrace. Two older women seem self-absorbed and a bit uncertain. A meaty kid in his early 2Os looks downward with a shy smile. On the right sits a snotty-looking teenaged girl complete with saddle shoes. She holds a small picture as though it were tainted. The pivotal figure in the painting is a young boy who kneels in front of the adults. His face is contorted in a half wink, half grimace of patient endurance. Beck uses several historical sources for this painting. One of the older men is actually General George Marshall, the man who shaped much modern military doctrine and authored the Marshall Plan. The young boy is the child of Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini, regarded in the 195Os as a kind of bastard child in the public eye. Thus Beck presents us with the ultimate dysfunctional family. What is special about this painting (and this holds true for all of Beck's work) is that one does not need to know the identity of the characters for the painting to work on any level this is a compelling family portrait. Beck is at his best when showing the sly, winking members of the war generations. The painting reeks of double standards, triumphs, broken promises, and the terribly fragile unit known as family. These are close relatives who have obscured truth for so long that nervous truths and backslaps have replaced meaningful dialogue.
With their highly staged quality, Beck's paintings have often been described as ritualistic. Indeed they have the outward appearance of a celebration or rite of passage. But what is the anticipated outcome of these events? In Beck's world there is no particular goal in mind. On closer examination it seems more accurate to say that Beck depicts a world that is gleefully anti-ritualistic. These chummy, glad-handing people stomp and thrash every vestige of ritual—that is awareness, a sense of communal unity—out of their empty lives. Most characters are caught in mid-babble, and they carry on with a kind of pure exuberance in honor of nothing.
Martin Beck gives us a 20th century view of history, as presented by an active participant. Consequently, the pictures are fraught with the ambiguities of our time. Experience, nostalgia, television imagery, fact and fiction are jumbled together. So while the paintings are laden with messages, Beck filters them through the morass that is our current collective memory. As might be expected, the result is a hodgepodge, but a highly enjoyable and thought-provoking one. Grandiose madness, impressive painting handling, and dark messages are all combined. His work is highly ironic, yet Beck obviously has deep respect for some very traditional notions of art making: the figure, the arrangement of lights and darks, the grand historical painting. Beck manages to juggle it all with skill and humor.
Jim Flahaven, Clarion, Pennsylvania