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Kate Beck

October 23, 2010

Untitled, 2010 (installation view)
poured oil, enamel and powdered graphite on aluminum
89 x 184 inches

As American Artist Kate Beck’s first solo show in New York City opens at the Pelavin Gallery, this text, based on three years of conversations with the artist, offers a glimpse of the genesis of the work.

The Pelavin Gallery Press Release states that :  “In this new body of work, Beck continues her engagement with repetitive tonal rendering as a means of interaction between light and shadow, human thought and consciousness, and the dynamic architectonics of space.”

Kate Beck

Kate Beck is on a journey.  Her paintings are about everything and about nothing.  She rejects categorisation; labels, words:  “It is a challenge being in the middle of nowhere and making pictures about nothing…  And a freedom. There is nothing in this world that can escape interpretation.  The whole premise of my own work is that no two people see or experience the same thing in the same way.  They bring to it their experiences and their pasts and what they see is set within the context of the time and the place.”

Her current situation, living on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, creates within her an inescapable fascination with the light between the sea and the sky, which is paralleled in her work by her interest in the way that light is refracted. Kate’s own past has coloured her present.  As a child she lived within a richly imaginative world of stories.  She wrote and drew on a chalk board at her Grandmother’s house and on fine days she chalked grids and boxes on the driveway into which she added tables and chairs and then moved into her invented house and played there.  Now she draws on paper, an excessively precious surface for her, “I obsess about the vulnerability of the paper”.  She marks the paper using a rule and a succession of soft graphite pencils, which need constant attention.  She works quickly whipping her arm along the edge of the rule in repetitive process. Each work is autonomous, she does not work in series or groups but often likes to group a similar set of work together. Interestingly she talks of shapes rather than lines, it is the form that begins to appear through the making of the lines which interests her, rather than the individual lines:  “I make one line then two more.  Then I start responding to lines in big shapes”. The rhythm creates a fluidity of movement, which takes her to a place where she listens to what the marks and the materials are telling her and follows their lead. Her paintings, which follow a similarly process-based approach, are poured. Again she allows the direction and flow of the first pour, the most important one, to take the lead and the painting flows from that. “Wide pours evolved as a process.  It has become my process.  It is how I can access the surface.”  She finds that there is much more trial and error, more leeway with the paintings.  Recently she has been experimenting with different materials, aluminum as a support and vinyl in place of oil paint.  A risky business since she has a secure knowledge of how oil paint responds, but the challenge of using a paint that has more body, rich sensual colours and a velvety surface attracts her.  Her journey into a new medium offers as much excitement as watching the movement of the poured paint down the surface of the aluminum.

Untitled, 2010
poured oil, enamel and powdered graphite on aluminum
34 x 55.5 inches

Untitled, 2010
Graphite of paper on aluminum
12 x 12 inches

Structure is an important element of her work; in common with many other artists she pursues the structure of discipline opposed with freedom and searches for a balance between the two.  The grid, which has a long history back to her earliest chalk drawings, is similarly important and part of the reason that she admires the work of Agnes Martin.   She responds to the challenge of going deep within the surface of Martin’s paintings to access the humanity in her work.  In her own work she considers that the human element is much nearer the surface, much easier to access, and this pleases her.  Brice Marden is another influence. Visiting an exhibition of his notebooks, she found that these visual journals had such intensity that their impact has stayed with her and of his Cold Mountain drawings; she remarks that it is “not just the quality of the line, but where he dared to go with it”. However it is Gerhard Richter who has had a really profound influence upon her and her work.  She first came across a few works by him in the nineties but then a retrospective at the Hirshorn Museum in Washington DC in 2000 just blew her away.  She was amazed and seduced by the deconstruction of the photographic image in his work.  She started using smeared oil paint, which she saw as “embracing the concept of time on the surface”, and much of her current work stems from that formative experience.  Beck’s work is very formal in approach, concerned with shape, colour and shape again. She identifies, closely with the theories expressed by Theo van Doesburg in his 1920 Manifesto on Concrete Art but does not allow them to invade her work, rather she absorbs and reinterprets them so that they have a presence like a memory which can be recalled when required. She acknowledges that at an earlier point in her career she was making a real distinction between painting and drawing, the drawings having much more freedom and fluidity.  Now however her practice has become one, both separate disciplines interchangeable, with the colours produced by the graphite as elemental and essential as the linear mark-making of the poured paint.

Untitled, 2010
poured oil, metallic enamel and powdered graphite on linen
60 x 60 inches

Kate Beck’s show Conditions of Existence at the Pelavin Gallery, New York opens on October 28th

© Fiona Robinson 2010

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