The New York Times, Sunday, May 24, 1998
Not Much in Common, Except Commitment to a Vision
THE three current exhibitions at the Jersey City Museum would seem to lack a common thread: one consists of hard-hitting realist painting, another of sculpture presented as toys, the third of ethereal abstract painting made with lace. It's evident that all the work was made by artists with ambition and obsessions, and the attitudes driving their art turn out to be strongly complementary.
The realist is Martin Beck, who was born in Buffalo and lives in Manhattan. His 12 paintings, jammed with figures and incident, have a remarkable surface clarity. In an interview with the museum's curator, Alejandro Anreus, Mr. Beck says he once heard a visitor to one of his shows characterize the work as "Norman Rockwell gone bad." That sums up his territory: Mr. Beck seems determined to take America's pulse at the end of the century, and it races. Mr. Beck's sturdily built characters tend to smile a lot, but it's obvious that the smiles mask anxieties.
For the most part, the paintings, all made since 1994, are panoramic in scope, a format that serves Mr. Beck's drive to leave no facet of contemporary life unexamined. In a catalogue essay introducing the work, Elaine King, professor of critical theory and art history at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, reveals that "he employs photographs to piece together his idiosyncratic narratives." This process accounts for the jarring and turbulence the viewer feels with the often abrupt shifts in scale and locale and historical epoch in a given painting. But thanks to Mr. Beck's paint-handling mastery of the compositional tricks of large-scale realism as it has been practiced for centuries, the disjointedness is papered over.
Ordinary citizens who tend to elbow one another for prominence star in the paintings, but so do animals, especially dogs and apes, which nakedly express a painting's true temper. In "Corn Dog," ostensibly describing a barbecue in a cornfield, two dogs occupy the foreground. One leaps over the tub of beer on ice to attack the other canine, which resembles a wolf. Carnage is a common theme. To the left of the dogs, a young man wearing military camouflage pants is definitely not smiling as he butchers a carcass. Mr. Beck does not hesitate to put repellent vignettes under a viewer's nose. When a viewer arrives at "Nation," a clamorous gathering evoking political fund-raisers, the spaghetti with tomato sauce served up in the foreground will strike him as nauseating.
Ms. King observes that like Alfred Hitchcock, Mr. Beck often puts his own image into his work; it's always a grinning likeness. In "Tarzan's Hollywood Party" he is shown imitating, or harmonizing with, a pair of apes in the foreground. He uses the prevalent American nostalgia for a more innocent time to underscore the current sense of cultural unraveling.
He reaches back a couple of generations for the figure who might be the patron saint of his current crop of work, W. C. Fields. In the center of "Lush Life," Fields seduces a young woman of today who is wearing cutoffs, while another work essentially a musical gathering of old men from the Fields era, plus a grinning Mr. Beck and a violinist who recalls Divine, the strapping and flamboyant transvestite who starred in several John Waters movies is titled "It's a Gift," after a Fields film. And to the content-starved art world, Mr. Beck's paintings are a cautionary gift.