Recent Sculpture and Large Scale Drawings
May 19 – September 10, 2005
at Peter Blum SoHo
November 1, 2005
John Beech makes pieces that sit awkwardly in space. They rarely impose themselves with confidence; rather, they intrude, often obstructively, on the viewer. They squat close to the ground or jut out from the wall. They make as if to trip you up and ask to be viewed from unusual angles. They take up too much or too little space. And they combine that awkwardness with a taste for the unassuming and the banal, for industrial materials and functional, unobtrusive objects. Beech makes paintings out of carpenter's glue and floor pieces out of car mats. And, thankfully, the result is not another paean to everyday life but a witty probing of categories and assumptions. He plays with the automatisms of the gallerygoer, triggering and then confounding them, denying obvious pleasures and offering others -- more provisional, teasing and unexpected -- in their place.
Beech, a British artist based in New York, worked for a time as a museum installer and regularly incorporates the paraphernalia of art-handling in his work. He fixes castors to platforms, beams and blankets, creating pieces that send up their own utilitarian pretences. And he makes Plexiglas cases for workmen's gloves and for strips of old poly urethane foam, as if the objects deserved careful conservation. He brings the procedures of the workshop into the studio and gallery, suggesting that artworks may be dysfunctional mutations of ordinary objects. Alternatively, he can be seen as claiming that workmen's tools and materials may have aesthetic merit. But then again, they may not -- he is too canny to give the question a steady answer. His works touch on the possibility that the viewer's appreciation of a car mat or glove -- or of the luscious colours and beautifully worked surfaces of other works, for that matter -- is a conditioned reflex, prompted by the gallery setting or a display case. The aesthetic rewards on offer in Beech's work are always hedged about with muted ironies. But the pleasure he takes in the gratuity of the artwork, in the uselessness of an encased glove or an upturned castor, is unreserved.
Beech often makes objects that combine the properties of painting and sculpture. He has, for instance, produced a series of black, rubber-coated pieces that, when viewed head-on, resemble monochrome paintings. But they can also be seen as wall-mounted sculptures; look from the side and they turn out to be sleeves, with thin cavities between parallel rubber surfaces. These works, with their dark interiors, give a comically literal expression to the notion of profundity-of 'hidden depths', to use the old cliché. They also look vaguely like packing cases for fragile commodities such as paintings, raising the possibility that they are expendable by-products, signs of the artwork's absence. So the pieces quietly play out an outrageous conceptual rift, making claims to high seriousness while also ironically hinting that they may not be artworks at all.
Other pieces draw not on the experience of the museum installer but on the urban landscape. Beech makes low-lying structures that are profiled to resemble the small concrete barriers of North American car parks. He fashions them out of wood and paints them bright colours, occasionally adding castors, or fitting sections together at right angles. And he has a long-standing interest in skips. He takes black-and-white photos of them and then paints over the containers with coloured enamel. He effaces them -- a witty, ambivalent gesture, given that they wouldn't need effacing if he hadn't first drawn attention to them. Skips, after all, tend to be near-invisible fixtures. And the colour gives them a surreal glow, which, of course, undoes the effacing.
Beech also makes skips of his own: large plywood containers, their inner surfaces coated with bright enamel. They are finely crafted; every bevelled edge, structural support bar and reinforced corner is handled with lavish care. He is, in effect, giving each skip a Benjaminian 'aura'; that is, the authority of the unique work of art. But the effect is more ambiguous than that: he may be elevating a functional object, but his pieces can also be understood in a completely different light, as exposing the workings of the aura, as demystifying it by association with the vulgar skip.
Beech looks back to 1960s Minimalism while cheerfully embracing the figurative impulse that artists like Robert Morris and Sol LeWitt tried so hard to subdue. You could call him an expansive neo-minimalist; the contradiction sits well with his work.
He conjures useless objects out of practical components and sumptuous images out of urban flotsam. He makes pieces that are gorgeous in their detailing but their aesthetic appeal often turns out to be double-edged, a promise on the point of unravelling. Conceptual and sensory pleasures tend to be at odds in his work, which regularly toys with the thought that aesthetic gratification is little more than a conditioned response to obvious promptings. This is the meaning of the awkwardness; it is the calling card of a practice that wants to meet the protocols of art-making and display at an unusual, slightly discomfiting tangent. What seems to redeem art for Beech is not the assurance of aesthetic pleasure but the satisfaction he finds in the superfluous gesture. He uses basely functional objects only to give them a new and disabling context and so to assert more clearly the liberating uselessness of the art object. His pieces are nicely made not so much to pander to the viewer's expectation of visual delight as to drive home the logic of waste and pointless effort, to offer a release from the ever-tightening diktat of efficiency.
- MARCUS VERHAGEN