In 1970, conceptual artist Mel Bochner created an artwork called “Misunderstanding (Theory of Photography). For this work, Bochner, who enjoyed nothing so much as interrogating modes of representation in art, commented specifically on assumptions about photography. The piece consisted of quotations regarding the medium from well-known personalities and reference books, each handwritten on a 16 by 20 inch notecard. The observation of Marcel Proust’s bruises, for example, was “Photography is the product of complete alienation. »
Another hypothesis came from the Encyclopaedia Britannica: “Photography cannot record abstract ideas. Without the real impetus for “Tad Beck: Eyes of,” the current photography show at Grant Gallery Wahlquist (through June 12), that notion metaphorically throws down the gauntlet that Beck has been struggling with for years.
The series of abstract portraits were conceived before the advent of Covid-19 as part of Beck’s self-imposed winter isolation at his studio Vinalhaven. The pandemic, of course, only intensified isolation, resulting in this rich body of work. As a way to stay connected to friends during this time, Beck asked artists “whose vision has shaped or inspired Beck’s own” (in the words of the press release) to send him a pair of their glasses, which he then photographed on a checkerboard sheet. He developed this image and then trained his Hasselblad camera on this.
This was the first step in an iterative process in which Beck took multiple shots of photographs (sometimes as many as 200 over the months for a single final portrait). For each frame that followed the initial still life on checkerboard, Beck clamped the glasses in front of the camera lens, thereby shooting each successive frame “through the eyes of” his individual subjects. The condition of glasses, the strengths of prescription and coatings, and the various angles at which Beck placed them in front of his camera lens, refract light and the subsequent distorted image in new ways.
“The destination was always to erase the original glasses and create a new abstract space I couldn’t scientifically explain with my understanding of the camera lens,” Beck told me when I met him at the gallery to see the show. The colors and shapes that appear in the finished large format works (they are all 42.5 by 32 inches) are luminous and mysterious, not only to the viewer, but to Beck himself.
Beck postulates that certain colors can come from light in how pierced eyeglass frames or the way an AR catches and sheds ambient light (most were taken in natural light, though sometimes Beck employed artificial lighting to accentuate certain effects). Other colors, he says, are likely “chromatic aberrations” defined by Wikipedia as “a failure of a lens to focus all colors to the same point.” It is caused by dispersion: the refractive index of lens elements varies with the wavelength of light.”
Art and creation, of course, are ephemeral rather than purely scientific. If everything can be explained scientifically, the mystery of the creative process would be compromised. Only by walking past photography can explainable and quantifiable communicate abstract ideas that Encyclopedia Britannica claims cannot. Thus, Beck’s inability to explain color phenomena only egged him. “The game was just as important as the technique,” he says. “If I could figure out what was going on” – that is, figure out exactly what color was caused by this phenomenon – “that tended to push me to continue.” »
The selection of the matrix as the basic checkerboard for all work was no accident. It is a conscious reference to optical examinations designed to test the accuracy of our perception and, therefore, an additional layer in Beck’s exploration of the limits of photography, as well as what it can convey beyond representation. purely objective.
Among the subjects who sent Beck their glasses were Michael Stipe, Maine multimedia artist Alison “Wooly” Hildreth, New York video artist Charles Atlas, California installation artist Andrea Zittel, Chicago-based interdisciplinary and conceptual artist Nyeema Morgan and many more. still others REM. What’s most remarkable about the series is how each final image conveys something about the essence of its subject. Even though we knew nothing of the process involved, and even though the titles do not identify the subject, an ineffable presence emanates from them.
Once we know ‘who’ we are looking at, we inevitably grasp the associations we have of that person, which seems to individualize him or his image in a suitable way. Yet the very essence of the subject remains blurred – certainly visually, as the distortions of the glasses primarily dissolve clear outlines and bend, twist and warp the chessboard in fluid, ever-changing ways. But if we can feel an essential presence, we cannot hold or fix it in place.
“John O’Reilly,” for example, is Beck’s portrayal of the brilliant Massachusetts photo-montage artist and, indeed, the images appear almost pieced together and layered like a collage. They’re also sensual in a way that evokes the mood of some of O’Reilly’s homoerotic works, which bask in the muscularity, suppleness of skin and desire of young male bodies. Yet the essence of O’Reilly the Man, like many of this artist’s images, is enigmatic. It’s constantly oscillating, unfolding and morphing, which hopefully is what our mutable souls tend to do.
The ‘Michael Stipe’ portrait is flooded throughout with vivid splashes of blue, pink and white light that seem to shine from within the image, illuminating the darkness. It’s almost impossible not to correlate with the stage lights in a dark theater that shower a performer with colored light overhead. The “Andrea Zittel” portrait is awash in golds, and reddish-brown sand beiges. It may be total luck, maybe just the combination of the effects created in the image by his glasses and the light that permeated Beck’s studio that day. But given that Zittel often works in the California desert, it seems beyond coincidence in some way, as if the portrait channels the environments she creates and her love of these arid landscapes.
Wahlquist, Beck’s gallery owner and husband, points out that Beck studied painting before turning to photography, and that these images reveal the sensibility of a color field painter. This is true to some extent. But he also shares a visual – though not thematic – affinity with Ross Bleckner, whose paintings also seemed to shimmer and glow with a mysterious inner light.
Again Beck shatters the idea that photography cannot capture abstract ideas. It is probably true that conventional photography cannot, depending on whether it makes so fleeting, about fixing a specific moment in perpetuity. But contemplating these works that are produced over time is like getting to know each subject little by little. Although we probably can’t say exactly why, we come away from “The Eyes of” feeling like we understand something deeper and more personal about the people they abstractly portray.
Jorge S. Arango has written on art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]