Building the Everyday.
It is unfair to judge an entire genre, movement, technique, or medium in art by the weakest examples (or what has annoyed you in the past). The confluence of assemblage in sculpture (and to a lesser extent painting) seems to have become a defacto house style, especially among young and emerging artists and the galleries that show them. It has always annoyed me, perhaps for its seeming ubiquity and the lack of (or dare I say utter contempt for) craft that sometimes seems inherent to such work. It is as if the permissions opened up by Rauschenberg and fully realized in the work of Richard Tuttle had spawned a contemporary equivalent to the legions of academic painters who buried their canvases with earth tones following the lead of Rembrandt and others.
We all have our own value systems and personal biases, but they should not prevent us from wondering enough to be drawn in for a closer look at something that has previously only been an irritant. I ventured into Peter Blum’s 29th Street space unfamiliar with John Beech’s work (although intrigued by images of Make that I had seen in various press announcements) and left considering what made this exhibition, this work, different from similar constructions and assemblage that I have dismissed in the past. I was excited to discover new work that spoke to my own personal interests while at the same time forcing to me reconsider so much of what I’ve seen and responded to in the past.
Upon reflection the draw of reference and subject matter is the key. Upon moving to New York I was struck by just how neat, clean, and taped off much of the art that was being shown was, despite being exhibited only a few feet from gritty sidewalks and made in lofts and factories re-purposed from a different era. I wanted the art I was seeing to reflect the environment of the city that I was growing to love. Mr. Beech’s sculptures and drawings are inspired by the wear and detritus of an industrial urban infrastructure. He takes the quasi-minimalist forms of dumpsters and shipping containers, functional objects that are as ubiquitous as they are either ignored (at best) or scorned as a nuisance (at worst), and draws out a more complex formal language. His sculptures, like their sources, are as marked as the sidewalks and streets we all walk, portraits of a system and environment that functions not in spite of the grime, but because of it.
Not all of the works are uniformly successful, but they do point to the artist tracking the tests, sketches, and prototypes that are a personal R&D lab. The front gallery offers a sculpture of five industrial sized bottles of glue turned up to get every last ounce of usable material out, a trick familiar to almost any builder writ large. The large Composite Drawing push pins a mural sized accumulation of small sketches to the wall. Individually they do not provide much beyond a measure of the artist’s abstract penmanship. Similarly the small wall vitrines (Here to Alang and works from the artist’s Blagen series) in the side gallery only set up the recycling of studio debris and previous ideas (such as Mr. Beech’s larger previous encasement sculptures) as smaller works.
The side gallery also includes three Coated Drawings, which are some of the most successful works in the show. They relate to the collages of metallic tape on near billboard sized photographic prints, but the grain and scale of the photographic base is perfectly matched to the tone, touch, and viscosity of the enamel paint that modifies and erases that image; it becomes almost impossible to tell if the artist has printed a degraded negative. In the large two dimensional works the web of metallic tape struggles to find an equal footing with the scale of the photos. The two Reutlingen Factory Yard works use more tape (# 2 disrupting the surface with an all over network that mirrors the background, # 1 relying on a contained flat mass), but Stagg Street, Brooklyn works better in this regard for combining two photographs in the first place. The strips of foiled adhesive are able to function as drawn line and shape that both function independently by describing new related shapes while also unifying the underlying images, rather than just disrupting the illusionistic rendering in the photo.
Moving to the rear gallery his ideas are more fully realized through the objects presented. Make takes the tape drawing from the large collages and expands it into three dimensions. It is made of re-purposed hollow aluminum troughs bolted together to form a barricade like structure. Uniformly placed screw holes on the ends of each bar hinting at earlier function, while red duct tape is a direct application of color in lieu of a painted gesture, the ridges of folded tape are a union impasto. The sculptures Rolling Platform and Silver Container simultaneously reference painting and the minimal object while also foregrounding the lowly containers that are abused in the process of moving everyday cargo and freight form place to place. His containers would be hard pressed to function; the platform is sealed off, the container is oversized and open; but their construction as sculpture and everyday monument is persuasive.
While it is possible that the turn to assemblage was a response by younger artists to the same hermeticism I disdained, there is a noticeable difference with the craft of Mr. Beech’s sculpture; it seems solidly constructed rather than slapped together, and engages the methods of fabrication through a personal studio practice that is direct and unfussy. Finish may not be necessary, but is considered and never ignored. In this way his exploration of construction and assemblage also constitutes a formal investigation of these processes that is often missing from other works of superficially similar construction. His pragmatism towards his materials is both subject and operation, the contractor’s equivalent of medium as message. Where other assemblage invariably falls flat for me is not when the construction is shoddy, but when it is ill-considered, or only just what is necessary to get it out of the studio. By avoiding this trap Mr. Beech is producing complete statements as opposed to exhibiting his sketches.
John Beech The State of Things at Peter Blum Chelsea 526 West 29th Street, New York City through March 19, 2011.