Andrew Beck reviewed - May 2018
Exhibition: Bowerbank Ninow, Auckland
11 April – 19 May 2018
Reviewed by Geoffrey H. Short
Andrew Beck is an artist who, since graduating from the Massey University School of Fine Arts in 2010, has developed a strong exhibiting record, with solo shows in Wellington, New Plymouth, Berlin, Paris and Cologne. My first encounter with Beck's work was at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, as part of Geoffrey Batchen's epic Emanations exhibition of 2016. I remember admiring the scale, ambition and conceptual rigour of Beck's piece in that show, Double Screen, 2016, but Emanations was so dense with treasures that I confess to not recognising Beck's name when this show, his first in Auckland, was announced.
Emanations surveyed the art of the cameraless photograph, and although much of Beck's work consists of site-specific installation, it almost always incorporates photography, specifically the photogram. He describes his work as multidisciplinary, with photography the driver of the rest of his practice.(1) Indeed, his primary considerations seem to be the key elements of photography: light, shadow, surface, reflection, and the fixing of these elements in time.
The works in Open Surface are all photograms, made by exposing photo-sensitive paper to light, without the intermediary of a lens. The images are formed from shadows cast by the objects placed on or near the paper at the time of exposure. In four of the works, an added layer of transparent coloured enamel is placed over the print, which takes the image one more step away from being perceived as a figurative rendition of the real world. The formal precision of these pieces is striking, and owes as much to Kazimir Malevich and Gerhard Richter as to László Moholy-Nagy and Paul Outerbridge. These are objects with an immediate aesthetic appeal, but a mysteriousness that encourages, even demands, contemplation. While the photographic element maintains a firm link to at least the notion of recording specific objects in time and space, it is not clear what the objects might have been, or where, or when. Having been fabricated for the purpose of image making, they exist only in the traces, the shadows they cast. The images hover between representation and abstraction, never quite allowing themselves to be resolved into anything definable. While the hard-edged geometries and graduated tonalities evoke digital imagery, the decidedly analogue creation process keeps the work grounded in the real world of hands-on craft, with a dash of alchemy.
The remaining works highlight the sense of alchemical and the hand-made even more strongly. They don’t have the added chromatic flourish of the coloured pieces, and the palette of blacks, whites and grays brings us back to what we might read as photographic, even if we associate it more readily with vintage, pre-1980s photography. Indeed, the two pieces Dissipative Structure I and II, are not only the works that come closest to something we might recognise as part of the phenomenal world, they remind us of Theo Schoon's 1950s mud-pool photographs which hung in this gallery a few weeks ago. They also could be NASA imagery from Mars, close-ups of elephant skin or aerial photos of clouds, combining areas of crisp detail with sweeps of blurred tone, hinting at form, but never quite giving up their secrets.
The largest and most confounding work is the one that lends the show its name. Open Surface (Holon) 2018 consists of 16 framed prints hung as one piece. There is a white horizontal line in each print, and the prints are hung so that these lines are adjacent, forming a continuous line along the sixteen pieces. Large sheets of clear glass rest on the floor, leaning against the line. The sheets of glass refer to the making process, which involved using a sheet of glass to agitate liquid in a tray, forming the ripples we see recorded on the photograms. The white line marks where the sheet of glass rested on the photographic paper. The use of water in making photograms reminded me of the work of Adam Fuss, but where Fuss most frequently uses positive colour print materials, keeping his imagery well within the realm of the recognisable, Beck's use of black & white negative paper keeps his pictures two degrees closer to abstraction. Having said that, these works are the ones that I could come closest to "reverse engineering" to deduce how they were made, and artefacts like the glass edge and what appears to be a weight to hold the paper in place, hint at the physicality of their making. I conjure an image of the artist as mad scientist, sloshing chemicals around in his laboratory, seeking an elusive truth.
I'm not convinced that the inclusion of the leaning sheets of glass added a lot to this work. While related, it didn't seem conceptually essential to the work in the way that similar sheets of glass were in an earlier work, Linear Split (8 Phases) 2015, installed at the Adam Art Gallery as part of the group show The Specious Present in 2015. As it happens, that show also featured Colin McCahon's Walk (Series C), 1973, a large multi-part work with a continuous horizon line. I'm sure the reference is as deliberate and considered as all Beck's work appears to be. His work is a synthesis of ideas and traditions from painting, sculpture, conceptual art and photography, demonstrating an understanding and respect for those who have gone before.
(1). Interview with the artist, 2016 http://govettbrewster.com/exhibitions/emanations-the-art-of-the-cameraless-photograph
Geoffrey H. Short is an artist and photographer living in Auckland and is the director of PhotoForum Inc.