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"At this moment you’re trembling because of the situation and the prospect of the hunt.  Where would the tremor be if I were as precise as a railway timetable?"
Arthur Conan Doyle, The Valley of Fear

Fictional Theatricality in a Cyber Age
By Elaine King

Since its revival in the 1980s, under the banner of Neo-Expressionism, the figure has returned with a vengeance in contemporary art. Today, figuration provides artists with a symbolic vocabulary enabling them to explore a spectrum of topics, from and to the value of the body itself. In contemporary figurative painting, however, the figure is withdrawn from traditional issues of representation even though recognizable images are evident. The figure no longer functions as a conveyor of factual essences. It now functions fundamentally as an elusive surrogate, a substitute for other meanings. The art of the 1990s represents a conglomeration of information; it is not a complete manifestation, but signifies a denotation of something other than itself.

Art, especially painting, no longer refers to immediate realities that derive identity solely from the conventions of painting. Today’s artists incorporate the history of the transmitted image from everyday life and from a larger cultural history of the world. A new aesthetic is emerging which reveals an altered cultural context that has been transformed by the experiments of late Modernism, the crisis of Postmodernism, and the reconstructed codes influenced by technology—all resulting in a world of the moment. For some artists, figural references act merely as an extension of a performance, a mirror of culture, a window into another world or a proof for critical theory. The body is linked more and more closely to a character in literature, as a fiction of the mind. Many artists, however, use it as a motif to express the conditions of a collapsed social structure, conveying an air of suspicion and disenfranchisement in a world of the immediate. Moreover, a sense of fleeting transformation characterizes much Postmodern figurative work. Themes of denial, loss, cynicism and identification have replaced the linear narratives of an earlier society that lived in a unified world of prescribed culture. Aspects of this inform the complex farcical and ironic paintings of such an artist as Martin Beck.

Beck's art belongs to a genre of figuration that demonstrates a sensibility akin to European master painters, despite his acknowledgment that our postindustrial society and its social fabric are radically changing. Artists that combine elements of the fantastic in their works such as Hieronymous Bosch, Peter Bruegel the Elder and Francisco Goya, as well as those who depicted aspects of prosaic reality, such as Gustave Courbet, Eduoard Manet and Edgar Degas have significantly shaped his visual language. Like them, Beck struggles to depict the human condition of his age but within an altered framework. As a member of an "information society" he recognizes the significance that language plays in establishing perception and shaping information. Elements that resist the old framework—such as instant global media coverage, computers and digital photography—are critically important in shaping culture. Through a unique synthesis of allegory, psychological perceptiveness and idiosyncratic invention, Beck constructs manifold enigmatic puzzles depicting critiques of bourgeois and working-class cultures.

As a painter, he is a master of social and socio-political satire and lampoonery. Working with powerful, whiplash candor and employing the drama of light-dark contrasts, Beck brings forth intelligent pictures that are filled with wry commentary about our Postmodern era. His use of the recognizable image is comforting and inviting to the viewer, despite the bizarre content of the dramas portrayed.

Martin Beck manipulates a unique brand of visual rhetoric to scrutinize a materialist, lost society, using insight and wit. Beck and his brand of farce at times echo the satires of Moličre and Swift. Unlike many contemporary artists who prefer to deconstruct history or to make political jabs at conventional society, he neither perpetuates academic theory nor produces political illustration. One might conclude that he is somewhat out of step with the times because of his determination to remain connected to historical and allegorical painting. I caution one not to draw such a simplistic and erroneous conclusion. Just as Marcel Duchamp was a master at playing language and intellectual games, in Beck’s art, what you see may not be what you think you see! Notwithstanding the prevailing esoteric extravaganzas enacted in his work, each composition is resolutely constructed to characterize the unbalanced social, political and psychological configuration of life at the close of the 20th Century.

Beck remains steadfast in his dialogue with other visual art traditions despite his need to express the reeling realities of this era. He functions as a type of trickster who comprehends the power of surprise and camouflage. He is an astute student of film and popular culture. His brand of black comic drama stems not from a frenzied mind, but from an artist who is an ardent observer. Beck’s respect for the old masters and Europe’s grandest traditions conjure up the philosophical aesthetic stance of Manet and his controversial works, handled with luscious, painterly fluency and rich tonal contrasts, inspired by the 17th-century Spanish master Diego Velázquez. Beck’s painting Lazy (1997), imparts such a propensity.

Unlike Goya, Beck does not condemn humanity for its evils but acknowledges its absurdity and how it informs our fractured everyday realities. In his jewel-colored, emotive ambiguity, Beck presents emotional confusion with lucid exactitude. Although he employs the traditional medium of painting, the resulting outcome represents a fundamental break with tradition. Film, photography and electronic technology are influential in shaping his vision. Beck provides viewers with imagery that packs a powerful punch because he recognizes the spectator’s predilection for television’s sound-bite productions and exotica.

In his paintings, Beck unleashes a natural strength and power that might have elicited Nietsche's approval. At times, Beck freely mixes parody with elements of strangeness, hinting at a macabre vision. Through the employment of theatrical invention he visualizes the inherent anxiety of a floundering society. In his extraordinary range of subjects, he focuses on middle-class American social rituals, the human psyche and the frequently weird behavior of individuals at ceremonial (but lackluster) gatherings. His pageants delve into the hypocrisy of external appearance and the coexistence of aberrant social behavior of the highborn.

The biting commentaries of his potent and sagacious compositions inspire reflection long after a painting is out of sight. Everywhere in Beck’s work, quirky psychological elements pervade, revealing tormented and confused characters. The world he presents is a playing field of uncensored personal expression in which he shares his notes about contemporary American life. Acute observations of human interactions, as well as an uninhibited mind that is in search of truth and meaning inspire this art. He invents a strange world of infinite spaces, limitless vistas and conflicting characters that coexist within a single frame. Beck’s diligent focus on humanitarian social consciousness calls to mind such French independents as Daumier, Millet and Courbet who constituted the fountainhead of liberal thinking in the 19th Century. Beck also shares a consciousness with Eric Fischl, whose work recalls an art of the most traditional kind. Both artists depict American psychological states and the particular conditions of a precise moment; both utilize a technique of switching from one historical period to another in a fleeting manner that resembles electronic communication. Nonetheless, unlike Fischl, Beck does not merely focus on the dysfunctional suburban family—he implicates the viewer in narrating unresolvable conditions, mixing time references, symbols and places of diverse reference.

His proletarian characters and themes, more frequently than not, are disturbing in these phantasmagoric, realist works of art. Beck perceives today’s society through unique personal insight and attempts to locate his position as a male member of a society that is in the midst of radical social and technological mutation. As Courbet worked from a tangent to a circle relationship in order to capture on canvas essences of his era, Beck likewise creates his visual arrangements in a rather disjoined manner.

Repeatedly, as was the case with Alfred Hitchcock, Beck appears as a removed personality in his masterfully executed paintings that elude an affinity with film noir. Although subtle at times, Beck employs a mordantly witty genius for caricature in expressing his contempt for hypocrisy, bourgeois stupidity and the rampant desire for spectacle. This is most evident in Tarzan’s Hollywood Party (1996), based deliberately on John Gardener’s novel, "The Sunlight Dialogues." On the surface it appears that something significant is happening in this crowded masque. Upon closer examination, however, the arena is revealed as only a dense, frieze-like palisade depicting a crowd of absurdly gesturing and isolated people, ostensibly acting out their individual fantasies. Through his use of contrasted color and exaggerated postures, Beck appears to stress the tangible presence and shape of a superficial reality. Formally, Beck utilizes the Hitchcockian signature cameo device by presenting himself in the composition, as he and one of the apes are centrally placed in the forefront of the painting. They are laughing hysterically as if they are part of the "maddening" crowd, but actually they are separated from the assembly by an illusory wall composed of a red line. Perhaps Beck is merely producing a 1990s parody of Shakespeare’s "Much Ado About Nothing." Is that not what most spectacle is about, despite its overt importance in popular culture?

Since 1995, Beck’s paintings have become darker, with large contrasting black areas and increasing compositional complexity. Gone is the playful sensibility once conveyed in the earlier works. Now, images share a type of socially serious realism akin to the Die Brücke artists in Germany. Unlike Beck’s earlier compositions, his new works possess an overriding psychological subject matter and lay bare the depths of tormented, even pathological, characters. Multiple dramas are enacted concurrently within the picture plane and Beck delivers eerily disquieting messages that require analytical decoding. In these more recent works, Beck’s familiarity with photography and film is all the more evident. As Degas harnessed photography for his picture-making processes, Beck employs photographs to piece together his idiosyncratic narratives. In the painting Nation (1994), the viewer is witness to a banquet that could be a political fundraiser. It can easily be interpreted as a media event captured by CNN; however, this painting filled with disjointed elements and historical references reads more as a scene from a Fellini or Bergman film.

In the work Lazy, what presumably resembles a type of family gathering is actually a bizarre adulterant of contradiction. This agitated image is almost equally divided into two parts by a flowing red curtain. We behold interior and exterior scenes from different moments in history. In this jangle of complexity and dissonance, Beck presents absolutes about human reality in a formidable setting that is laced with symbols of death and destruction. It appears the artist is trying to make sense of certain aspects of human history, but without passing judgment. The theologian Martin Buber has addressed the topic of good and evil, and his conclusion that each is a dual aspect of life is brought to the forefront in this image, which depicts a civilization that has a fluid and unstable form. Such sacred popular icons as motherhood, Santa Claus and the United States flag coexist with symbols that conjure up associations of blood and hatred—skulls and cross-bones, alcohol and the Nazi and Confederate flags.

The most mysterious of all his paintings is Jumping Off (1997). This is a disquieting piece devoid of humor. A Gothic obscure urgency prevails in this potent work which is filled with jarring contrasts of colorful enigmatic spaces, forced distortions and bizarre juxtapositions. One cannot but ask, what is going on here? Why are bathers standing on a pier out in "the middle of nowhere," with a seaplane docked along one side and two canoes on adjacent sides? Why does the sea abruptly evolve into a brilliant country club-like green island? And, off in the distance, why do rolling hills fill the horizon line against a sunset like one that might be found in Thomas Cole's "Voyage of Life" series? Manifold scenes are present, and the subject matter is transformed into new levels of meaning by Beck’s use of incongruent relationships.

Like many artists of his generation who were raised with the omnipresence of the media and its powerful impact, Beck ardently knows that surface is everything and appearance has become the essence. Perhaps it is because of these insights that Beck deliberately constructs paintings that withhold the hidden plot and disorder. In his conglomerate environments densely filled with historical characters, friends and colleagues that are treated with "black humor," Beck never intends to be blatantly cynical about humanity—so often the case in much late 20th-century art. Unlike the existentialists who despaired about a world filled with absurdity, Beck accepts and tries to make the best of it. Beck's effusive embellishments carry complex meanings and represent a rich diversity of cultures and generations. Myth, reality, folklore and comedy successfully coalesce in these crowded visual fields of human culture. The pageants unveiled remain ambivalent—they have no beginning, middle or end. The viewer enters and is invited to only investigate and then freely interpret the theatrical performance. Beck learned long ago that crisis infiltrates all decades and he opts to be a storyteller of a world in flux. With the death of Modernism and universal systems of meaning, however, art must be unraveled carefully.

How do we untangle the visual language and content in Martin Beck’s art of changing and shifting horizons? Beck has suggested using Hannah Arendt's famous descriptive term for Nazi brutality, "the banality of evil," as a guidepost for the interpretation of these pictures. If there is evil here it is certainly banal. I have found that the following line from J. Cazotte, The Devil in Love, also works quite well as a key: "The truth is that the devil is very cunning. The truth is that he is not always as ugly as they say."

Elaine A. King, 1998
Professor, Critical Theory & History of Art,
Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lazy, 1997
      Lazy, 1997

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tarzan's Hollywood Party, 1996
      Tarzan's Hollywood
      Party, 1996

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nation, 1994
      Nation, 1994

 

 

 

 

 

Jumping Off, 1997
      Jumping Off, 1997