Why the Mural, and History, and Art Matter

An edited version of this appeared in East Bay Express, 7/31/19: https://www.eastbayexpress.com/oakland/the-shame-of-the-mural-censors-why-art-and-history-matter/Content?oid=27198706

Why the Mural, and History, and Art Matter

  Our affairs are critical, and we must be dispassionate and wise.—POC Alexander Hamilton, getting better known these days

If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter. —George Washington, whitewashed blackguard

  The current controversy over the murals depicting The Life of George Washington at George Washington High School, in San Francisco’s Richmond District, has called into question yet again the role of public art in culture and politics. Victor Arnautoff (1896-1979), a Russian-born WPA muralist who worked with Diego Rivera in Mexico, and, in San Francisco supervised the creation of the Coit Tower’s murals, was asked in 1934 to paint a mural for the newly built high school celebrating its namesake. The 1600-square foot mural has come under attack recently for, to put it bluntly, political incorrectness, or a least insufficient political correctness for our enlightened, finicky times.


 It’s unfair. Arnautoff carefully researched “this famous man, a committed defender of freedom” but did not shrink from depicting, albeit relatively subtly (in my opinion), ”the spirit of Washington’s time,” with its mistreatment of blacks and American Indians, abuses that customarily were glossed over by the myth-besotted patriots, and, indeed, just about everyone, eighty years ago. The current thinking holds that Washington was a slaveholder and hypocrite, and thus no liberator; a champion of Manifest Destiny (though the term did not exist until Madison’s presidency); and that this tarnished history is too damaging to high-school students of color—and maybe sensitive white kids, too? Several passionately intense protesters, clad in black, naturally, at the July 15 panel discussion on the murals at the ILWU labor hall in San Francisco even raised placards and repeatedly shouted “Genocide!” Theirs is an intemperate position, ill-suited to a general noted for his air of command and self-control; he was described by one contemporary as “no harum-scarum, ranting, swearing fellow, but sober, steady, and calm.” Nor does it befit an artist who harbored strong leftist convictions, but politically astute, who knew how far it was possible to go when.across the continent, Nelson Rockefeller painted out Diego Rivera’s mural because of a portait of Lenin that the artist radamantly efused to remove. He had just the previous year counseled Bernard Zakheim, a prankish Coit Tower artist, not to include in his mural a sickle and hammer, in vain. “Freedom in America is understood in a special way.”Zakheim, later: “You were right, Mr. Arnautoff. I teased the bulls too much.”

 Nevertheless, the San Francisco School Board decided on June 28, unanimously, on the nearly-unanimous advice of a thirteen-person advisory group, the Reflection and Action Working Group (RAWG), to have the murals “painted down,” erased, at an as-yet unknown cost, but probably requiring a $500,000 environmental-impact study, just for starters. Merely covering the mural with panels would cost an estimated $600,000 to $845,000. Another writer lists the panel cost at $825,000, with curtains costing up to $375,000; in either case, it’s way too much, and totally unnecessary. Arnautoff’s mural, says the board,  “glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, Manifest Destiny, white supremacy, oppression, etc. The mural doesn’t represent SFUSD values of social justice, diversity, united, student-centered. It’s not student-centered if it’s focused on the legacy of artists, rather than the experience of the students.” “The majority of the group expressed that the main reason to keep the mural up at the school is focused on the legacy of the artist, rather than experience of the students, according to RAWG (I believe). “It’s reparations,” concluded one of the board members, perhaps as dazzled by the astronomical sum as any GOP lobbyist similarly working for a better, freer world. Those postmodernist-victim shopping lists and breathless condemnations, with the broadly inclusive, comical  ‘etc.’ and poor syntax, constitute in no way a reparation; they constitute a sop to symbolic retribution, and the punitive eradication of a liberal statement irom the past is a colossal waste of money. (Can we impeach?) Columnists ranging from the San Francisco Chronicle’s art critic Charles Desmarais to —strange bedfellows in here!—art historian Brian T. Allen in National Review have weighed in for freedom of speech, the latter quite pointedly, outing by name all seven ‘brainiacs,’ ‘bohemian yahoos’ and ‘anti-art fools’ (whose identities I shall leave discreetly curtained, for now, noting that one of them proposed renaming the school, such was his scornful disregard for “the great George Washington,” to quote our ‘favorite president.’ Many of the school’s alumni and teachers along with hundreds of artists and educators oppose this artistic censorship, counseling either leaving the murals intact, and using them as educational tools (which is my position); or, if the anti-muralists insist on their pound of flesh, covering them (or the offending parts) with panels, at a much lower cost, and thus doing nothing irreversibly shameful, ignorant, and hypocritical, heaping national ignominy on the liberal, socialist shithole of San Francisco.  Lope Yap. Jr., the sole RAWG dissenter, and vice president of the GWHS alumni association, as well as a progressive filmmaker and person of color, has pledged to fight to save the murals. Lawsuits and injunctions are probably in the offing. Stay tuned.

 I have opposed political censorship before, as in the teapot tempest over Dana Schutz’s Emmitet Till painting (www.visualartsource.com/index.php?page=editorial&aID=4029), and I try to be independent from art-world groupthink. L‘Affaire Arnautoff contains so many delicious absurdities that slipping into my Henry Fonda Man-of-Reason costume became mandatory. There are three salient points to make about this imbroglio.


 First, let’s dismiss the notion that art should be judged on its politics (what it says or enjoins) instead of its aesthetics (how it looks, makes us feel). This is the old style-versus-content conundrum, which always seems to suggest that we have to make a choice between saving the world and savoring it; we don’t. Art is often enlisted in the service of power, as all good postmodernist children know: and some of the best art ever made was commissioned by plutocrats and/or scoundrels—the Medici, the Hanoverians, the Bourbons, the cardinals and popes, the dynasties, etc.—to enhance their power and prestige. Nowadays we enjoy the splendor of that art while ignoring the imperial or imperialist unpleasantnesses that paid the artists, and we absolutely should revere the art, despite the complexities of history and patronage. If you look at the Sistine Chapel and see only the massacred Indians of the New World, blood transmogrified into aesthetic gold and silver, you deprive yourself of “the greatest thing that’s ever been done,” in de Kooning’s humorously worshipful words; but if you don’t know the sordid history behind the wealth, or ignore it, you’re not a morallly sentient adult. (Michelangelo’s High Renaissance frescos, let it be noted, have survived even the Reformation addition of fig leaves by poor Daniele da Volterra, Il Braghettone, The Breeches-Maker.)

 Much other art sidesteps current affairs—like Abstract Expressionism, with its focus on pure expression (and its contempt for the leftist propagandist art of the1930s: ”poor art for poor people,” in Arshile Gorky’s memorably dismissive aphorism), its cult of the heroic individual, easily co-opted to serve as propaganda for American-Way capitalism and consumerism. Rampant individualism vs creeping collectivism worked in the Cold War; expect a reprise (not a reprieve) again in 2020, bigly. Some artists manage to bestride both worlds: Philip Guston abandoned the elegant shimmering abstractions he made in the 1950s, loosely based on Monet, during the Vietnam-era 1960s and 1970s, in order to revisit the dark Klansman social commentary that he made in the 1930s. His stylistic epiphany and conversion from heavenly formalism—from “adjusting a red to a blue,” as he put it, later, wryly—to sinister/comic narratives like his excoriating drawings of scowling, scrotal Tricky Dick—evoked passionate reactions in the art congregation; he was assailed as a traitor by some, and as a visionary by others. Politically engaged art and fine art are both valid;  and both produce good and bad art: propaganda on the one hand, decoration on the other.

 As to actual treason, remember that, in the late 1940s, before Life magazine discovered Pollock the Cowboy, AbEx was seen not as red-blooded he-man stuff, but as the decadent, effete art of communists, eggheads, and other bearded, bereted subversives, who might be—who knows?—hiding military secrets in those blobs and squiggles. The McCarthyite Republican senator from Michigan, George Dondero, deserves exhumation:

 "Cubism aims to destroy by designed disorder... Dadaism aims to destroy by ridicule... Abstractionism aims to destroy by the creation of brainstorms". In 1952, Dondero went on to tell Congress that modern art was, in fact, a conspiracy by Moscow to spread communism in the United States. This speech won him the International Fine Arts Council's Gold Medal of Honor for "dedicated service to American Art." When art critic Emily Genauer (future winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism) interviewed Dondero in the mid-1950s he stated "modern art is Communistic because it is distorted and ugly, because it does not glorify our beautiful country, our cheerful and smiling people, our material progress. Art which does not glorify our beautiful country in plain simple terms that everyone can understand breeds dissatisfaction. It is therefore opposed to our government and those who promote it are our enemies." When Genauer pointed out the resemblance between his views and those of the Stalinist Communists he despised, Dondero was so enraged that he arranged to have her fired from her job at the New York Herald Tribune. (Wikipedia)




 Second, the mural is an excellent subject for education about art, culture, and politics. While some see Arnautoff’s “Life of George Washington” as a counter-myth or corrective to the semi-divine man-of-all-seasons status accorded Washington for two and a half centuries by ordinary Americans (as well as the Confederacy and American Bund fascists), I see it as a calculated correction by an artist who had learned to be discreet and modulated. Arnautoff was persona non grata in the USSR for decades because of his having fought on the White side of the Russian civil war; conversely, after his conversion to communism in the 1930s, during the San Francisco General Strike, he was investigated by the FBI for his links with Russia and his associations with visiting cultural figures and more ‘out’ communist artists like Diego Rivera,and other intellectuals in early 1930s Mexico City, all professed communists (as much as artists can be, anyway). Arnautoff’s biographer, Robert W. Cherny, repeatedly emphasized during his hotly disrupted ILWU slide talk that Arnautoff’s murals were in no way disrespectful to blacks and American Indians. On the Washington mural, he writes:

 At a time when the popular portrayal of California Indians sometime still depicted them as ”diggers”– the most primitive and degraded of North American tribes–Arnautoff treated them with dignity, presenting the complex artistry of a woman’s basketry and the man’s fox-skin quiver. He also depicted the meeting of Indians and Spanish authorities as a meeting of equals, a sharp contrast to the depiction of that event in the citiy’s “Pioneer Monument” (1894), which shows an Indian groveling at the feet of a ranchero and priest. (p.103)

 That monument was recently removed from Civic Center by the City of San Francisco, and deservedly so. Cherney continues:

Arnautoff said nothing, then or later, about his murals’ counter-narrative to that thenstandard high school treatment of the founding fathers and Western expansion. Washington dominates five of the six smaller murals but the centers of the four largest barrels are held by native Americans, working-class revolutionaries, and enslaved African Americans. In depicting Washington’s early life, Arnautoff centered the mural on native Americans in war paint, surrounded by British, colonial, and French troops and British colonists. In the facing mural, on the American Revolution, the center belongs to five men in working-class clothing raising the flagpole. VA’s portrayal of Mount Vernon puts Washington near the left margin in places enslaved African Americans at the center, More prominent the several white artisans on the right side of the mural.… Arnautoff’s’s mural makes clear that slave labor provided the plantations’ economic basis. On the facing wall Arnautoff was even more direct: the procession of spectral future pioneers moves west over the body of a dead Indian, challenging the prevailing narrative that westward expansion had been into largely vacant territory waiting for white pioneers to develop its full potential. For Arnautoff,”the spirit of Washington’s time” included not only the struggle for liberty and the founding of a new nation but also chattel slavery and the slaughter of Native Americans. (p.108)

The murals are indictments of America’s failings; they are not as dramatic or tragic as the Mexico City and Cuernavaca murals that Arnautoff helped Diego Rivera paint, full of armored, mounted conquistadores battling hand-to-hand with jaguar-costumed Aztecs wielding obsidian knives, or tortured, lashed Indians at the missions, and thus, they are more ambiguous in their sympathies to the casual viewer, unversed in art. They are on the side of the oppressed, however, while simultaneously giving Washington his due without sanctimoniously demonizing him for being of his time, not ours. As for the sentiment that Arnautoff’s rather soberly painted D.I., Dead Indian, has been traumatizing and triggering GWHS kids for eight decades, I would say that the very nickname is evidence to the contrary. (By the way, the Arnautoffs lived nearby, on 37th Avenue, and the two sons attended the school, as did a granddaughter who wanted to be near the murals.)

 Thirdly and finally, the notion that adolescents are excessively delicate and need protection from reality and history in this way is deeply repugnant and patronizing. I shall not quote the anti-muralists, but even the most temperate of them seem to assume that Americans are not able to handle the inconvenient truth that people do bad things to other people in the names of God, justice and empire—or mere self-interest. Life is violent, you say? Take a look at American culture; Arnautoff’s stately mural, even with its hints of America’s dirty hands, is no rival for the breathless farrago of mass shootings and hypocritical, abusive drivel that bombards us, 24/7. Remember H.G. Wells’ bestial morlocks and elfin eloi in 802,701 AD The Time Machine? Given the challenges that we face today, we cannot afford a younger generation trained to accept virtuous passivity; we need revolutionaries with smarts and moxie, and considerable skill at critical thinking—not just being unthinkingly critical as instructed at the Two-minute Hate du jour.

 

 

 

 

 

Lagomorphs


Lagomorphs

 The incessant insanity from Washington may have gradually raised Americans’ threshold of tolerance for nonsense, like the proverbial lobster luxuriating in the slowly warming pot, but sometimes one has to take a stand against even the banal and pointless (saving the truly criminal and murderous for another day). I refer, of course, to the $90,075,000 sale of the not-latest but apparently greatest (at least as determined by the group-mind wisdom of the art market) of Jeff Koons’s balloon-animal sculptures, “Rabbit (1986).” Made in stainless steel, the 41-inch-tall bunny, modeled after a swimming-pool toy, is one of an edition of three, supplemented with one artist’s proof, according to Andrea K. Scott in The New Yorker. It has a curious provenance as well. The painter Terry Winters bought it from Sonnabend Gallery in 1986 for $40,000, selling it a few years later to S.I. Newhouse, owner of Condé Nast (publisher of The New Yorker), for a cool million, for a $960,000 profit. Newhouse’s heirs have just reaped an enormously larger windfall, earning a return on investment of $89,075,000, give or take (minus commissions). Even more piquant in this tale of financial greatness are the players: the broker was Robert Mnuchin, an art collector himself, and the father of Steven Mnuchin, our current Treasury Secretary; the buyer, it has been revealed, is the hedge-fund billionaire, art collector and philanthropist, Steven A. Cohen, whose modernist and contemporary “trophy” pieces may someday furnish a private museum, probably in his home state of Connecticut.

The staggering amounts of money being invested by the 1% in this story cannot fail to appall and aggrieve those of us who see Koons as a kind of huckster in the Trumpian vein; as well as a descendant of the Pop artist Andy Warhol—now the subject of a large retrospective at San Francisco Museum of Art—and, before him, the New York Dadaist and proto-conceptualist Marcel Duchamp. Their joint legacy that art can be, respectively, whatever sells and whatever the artist decides have had a liberating effect on artists, but not one without the downside of making the market values (and public relations, fashion, and advertising) the drivers of the art world, not aesthetic quality. Que sera sera, we might sing, in honor of the late Doris Day.

My low opinion of Koons falls decidedly into the grumpy-codger Robert Hughes vein. Scott quotes him: “He has the slimy assurance of a blow-dried Baptist selling swamp acres in Florida... [Y]ou can’t imagine America’s singularly depraved culture with out him.” Yet she concludes that he is both expensive and great. Kirk Varnedoe, the art historian and MOMA curator, wrote in Artforum in 2003 (again, cited by Scott): “It seemed to me instantly, by involuntary reflex—and it still does by long reflection—that this bunny is one of those very rare hits at the exact center of the target.” Scott continues: “It became an icon of eighties excess (and thus, of white male privilege): fuck like bunnies, make more money, the one with the most toys wins.” It sounds a bit like Arthur Danto’s for-me dubious epiphany of The Brillo Boxes, frankly. Alexander Rotter, a Christie’s executive, went “even a step further.” Here he is, quoted in a Japan Times Culture/Entertainment article:

 Rotter said the sculpture is the antithesis of “the perfect man,” Michelangelo’s “David,” which was “carved by one of the greatest artists of all time with a chisel, out of one block of the purest white marble.’ “It’s the end of sculpture. It’s the anti-‘David,’ as I call it,” he said, referring to Michelangelo’s masterpiece. “You can’t go any further away from ‘David,’ still being figurative and a traditional sculpture.”

 It’s a telling comment, clever in its false-equivalency logic: Koons = Michelangelo, just with the polarities reversed. It does, however, reveal something about our anitheroic, cynical, even subservient era, when even young idealists have been socialized by postmodernism into bitter knowingness and impotence. Sir Kenneth Clark, in his BBC series Civilisation, remarked that great art like that of the Florentine Renaissance comes from periods of cultural confidence. The postmodernist riposte to this would be a catalogue of the crimes of all civilizations, including the moribund American empire, with its dirty laundry now triumphantly aired by the liberal professoriate. There’s no question but that the western liberal democracies have sinned, and often faltered, but can art and civilization be saved from the alternative to humanism, the brain-dead worship of money and might, wedded to theocratic fantasies, before the world ends with a nuclear bang or an environmental-collapse whimper? Is our late-capitalist decadence still amusing, really? I used to mock the phrase ‘late capitalist,’ in the simpler times of the triumphalist post-USSR 1990s, when we thought it safe to fantasize.—DeWitt Cheng

Stas Orlovksi at Traywick Contemporary

Subjective Objects

Stas Orlovski is a Los Angeles artist who employs subtle palettes to produce effects far beyond the relatively modest size of his works. He assembles wind, wave and water patterns from Japanese woodcuts; flora and fauna from Victorian books; and abstracted geometric figures from Russian Suprematism to create small theaters or filmscreens replete with birds, butterflies, moons, forests, and fragmented statues, (especially balloon-shaped featureless heads). Comparisons with Paul Klee and Joseph Cornell come to mind, but also with Dadaist/Surrealist collagists like Max Ernst, Bruce Conner and Lawrence Jordan. With the current show, обjект, the artist continues to expand beyond drawing, painting, printmaking and collage into animations projected onto his sculptures, continuing the cinematic turn of his earlier work, Troika, in 2016; like William Kentridge and Tony Oursler, he enlists 21st century technology to pursue his vision, transforming an “iconography of nostalgia” into compelling “dream-like objects.”

 обjект is a hybridized English-Cyrillic spelling of ‘object,’ and hybridization is the theme here, with drawings and ‘illuminated’ sculptures, sometimes of the same motif, engaged in dialogue. “Feet With Flags” is a sepia-toned ink drawing of two mannequin feet set atop a shelf or pedestal and outfitted with blank flags, one rectangular, one triangular, both blown forward, as if by a tailwind. A sculpture of the same feet probably predates the drawing; amplifying the absurdity of these obedient marching metonyms is the fluttering cloth projected on the flags. The antique mannequin torso of “Figure with Suprematist Composition” has a hollowed-out abdomen in which we see jostling geometric forms, like the battling Whites and Reds of revolutionary Russia as represented abstractly, briefly, in contemporaneous political posters. Also shown are four of Orlovsky’s Arp-like heads, two painted and two sculpted and enriched with projections; and a half-dozen landscapes of the artist’s inner world projected on the outer. A large Orlovski installation is coming to San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art in November. обjект runs through May 25; Traywick Contemporary, Berkeley, Thu-Sat 10--4  and by appointment (510) 527-1214; traywick.com. —DeWitt Cheng

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

The Crisis in Art Criticism (reprinted from VisualArtSource.com)

Is There a Crisis in Art Criticism?

Last December the art critic Irving Sandler posed (www.brooklynrail.org) fourteen broadly philosophical questions to fellow art critics who are trying to understand where art is going. Today, the third question, Q3: Is there a crisis in art criticism?

Well, yes, sort of. But first a trip down Memory Lane. In 1925, the Dadaist/Expressionist George Grosz and the publisher Wieland Herzfelde (brother of the photomontage artist John Heartfield) published a diatribe against the avant-garde art of the time (which they considered out of touch), and a defense of Dadaist sociopolitical iconoclasm, entitled “Art is in Danger,” referring to the alarums of “foes of Dada.” It’s a pithy, funny rant, and extremely partisan, excoriating the “the head-in-the-clouds tendency of so-called holy art, whose disciples brooded over …the ‘really’ revolutionary problems of form, color, and style” “while the generals were painting in blood.” If we, a century after The Great War, now oscillate between holy art and aesthetic iconoclasm, and often confuse the two, well, there’s nothing new under the global capitalist sun, maybe. Grosz and Herzfelde: “Formal revolution lost its shock effect a long time ago. The modern citizen digests everything . . . [I]ce-cold, aloof, he hangs the most radical things in his apartment. . . . Rash and unhesitating acceptance so as not to be “born yesterday” is the password. . . . [C]ool, . . . skeptical, without illusions, . . . he understands only his merchandise [read ‘business’]. . .for all culture, there are specialists who determine the fashion. . . . Even the formal revolutionaries . . . do fairly well, for, underneath, they are related to those gentlemen, and have . . . the same indifferent, arrogant view of life.” (That Grosz later repudiated, or at least depicted his earlier radicalism with irony, does not invalidate the 1925 analysis.)

The worldview of the consumer/flâneur, of course, pervades the art world, and it’s no good pining for “holy” art again, in either its realist or abstract incarnations. But to the extent that art exercises an influence on us, even shapes us, we need to be conscious of the values that it embodies, and what pleasure (or pain) centers in our brains it stimulates. If there is a crisis in art criticism—and I think there is—its cause is the present crisis in art, which is due to its plurality and diffuseness. There is no consensus about art’s purpose or function; indeed, at the top rungs of the art world, it often seems devoid of aesthetic value or human emotion, devolved into mere markers of social status. The reason so much art criticism divides into the extremes of formalist exposition/description (without analysis) or politically correct tendentious tract is that meaning has been leached from art in the name of total creative freedom. Today we are conditioned to invest blind faith in the artist and the art world, at the risk of seeming culturally retrograde. The last domain of free thought that many of us once discerned in art once has gradually become (or is becoming, or is in danger of becoming) an entertainment for the fashionable conformist: the popular game in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Centrifugal Bumble Puppy. The crisis in art, reflected in the crisis in art crit, is a reflection of contemporary society. In my opinion—and take it as misguided or alarmist if you will—is that we cannot afford to remain arrogant and indifferent to—and perpetually distracted from—the critically important larger crises at our doorstep. Art can be part of the solution; it should not exult in being part of the problem, or cover-up. —DeWitt Cheng

 

 

 

2014 review of Jeffrey Beauchamp shao at McLaughlin Gallery. Artist is currently showing (thru mid=April 2019) at Maybaum Gallery, San Francisco.

JEFFREY BEAUCHAMP: Freefall
By DeWitt Cheng

From the Renaissance to the middle of the nineteenth century, artists believed in the power of the visual image to comment on the world. Painters were taught to create skillful depictions of observable reality. With the modernist revolution of roughly1860 to 1960, artists asserted their independence from what was characterized as the slavish imitation of reality; this revolt was in part a response to the advent of photography. With the postmodernist revolution—by this term I include Pop art, land art, minimalism, conceptualism, and social-relations art—that began in 1960 and is now five decades old, the notion of the art object as personal expression came into question and under attack. In today’s pluralistic, anything-goes ferment, no central organizing principle predominates; there is indeed no consensus about what art is or does, since the anti-art ideas of Duchamp and others, promulgated through academically oriented art schools, define current practice for many. With the rising popularity of what has been “crowd-sourced curating,” i.e., interactive art situations, described recently by Ellen Gamerman in The Wall Street Journal (“Everybody’s an Art Curator”), it appears that art museums, too, are stepping away from the idea of personal expression toward what might be seen by old-school lovers of aesthetic visual experience as audience-friendly, risk-free group play. 

The title of Jeffrey Beauchamp’s painting exhibition, Freefall, could plausibly be misinterpreted as a commentary on this current atomization of culture, but for this Bay Area painter it represents the condition of art-making, and even, more broadly, living: there are no guarantees (or recipes or formulas); everyone is free-falling from birth toward (spoiler alert!) the ground. (If you don’t believe me, see Dino Buzzati’s story “The Falling Girl” or Max Beckmann’s painting, “The Falling Man.”) Beauchamp’s goal, he says, referring to the Buzz Lightyear character in the Toy Story movies, is “to fall with style.” Contemporary artists who believe that only the new is significant deny themselves both aesthetic pleasure and a broader perspective if they fail to see the great works of the past as imaginative flights that never end—that transport viewers, century after century. Beauchamp is a consummate painter who was cautioned many times in art school, the San Francisco Art Institute, with “the F word,” i.e., facility, a bugaboo of the Abstract Expressionist generation, but who, suitably ‘inoculated’ against art fashion, uses his skill in the service of an eclectic mind, restless imagination, trust in instinct—and playful sense of humor. Beauchamp: “I go with the flow and follow my impulses and assess as I go. I try to bring both sides of my brain into play and get a good balance.” 

In 2012 I wrote in Art Ltd magazine:

A skilled realist, he [Beauchamp] became dissatisfied some years ago … and loosened up his style with what he has described as "busting out" brushwork and a "caveman dance" process, of making gestures guided by intuition and improvisation, in the abstract expressionist style. His turbulent landscapes all but fly apart through sheer bravura, but somehow remain legible and coherent, due, no doubt, to his apprenticeship in realism in the late 1980s, when nothing could have seemed more demodé.
It was a self-guided study, of course. Beauchamp ensconced himself in the school library, studying Turner, Monet and Lorrain, emerging only to explore northern California's "amazing garden," hiking and painting with a friend. His work thus derives from both tradition and nature, and oscillates between realism and abstraction, but in an odd way: the modes are not fused, as in Cézanne or the Bay Area Figurative painters, nor are they confined to separate bodies of work, as in Gerhard Richter (whose soft-focus realism Beauchamp explored for a period). Rather, they are presented simultaneously in parallel, in the same paintings, as double images. As we change focus from depth to flatness and back, the hazy, golden-hued landscapes dissolve into energetic calligraphy, and vice versa, with each aspect canceling and superseding the other, like the complementary but incompatible partners in optical illusions: duck and rabbit or goblet and profile. Despite their humorous, absurd, enigmatic titles (some bearing excruciating puns), Beauchamp's small landscapes … reward serious, sustained looking.

The dozen-plus paintings in Freefall reward slow looking, too, their opulent color and brushwork complemented here and there by the artist’s philosophic humor (exemplified in a series made several years ago of carved, painted books — perfect for bibliophiles and bibliophobes alike). All the Good Little Californias appears to be a traditional landscape in the grand, turbulent, Romantic style of Turner, though loosely set down in quick strokes, as if by Manet, but it’s a conceptual work as well, an imagined landscape synopsizing the state’s geographical features. Bridge Out, Race On and I Hear Voices in My Head and Only Just Realized They’re All Actually Mel Blanc (referring to the voice of many Warner Brothers cartoon characters) are similarly faithful to the Romantic landscape tradition—in its own way, commenting both on the natural subject and the ways in which culture presents it for vicarious consumption. Cocotron the Chocolate Robot depicts a massive oak tree, hyperreal in its high-contrast modeling and implied anthopomorphism, rooted, like the boulder-like group of trees in the background, amid rolling hills that are delineated with expressionist brushstrokes—a crashing surf of vivid color. Familiar Balance of the Hasty Glacier and Landscape When Her Bread Machine Went Awry add figures to the landscapes; in the former, a small girl playing with a hula hoop between art books on Degas and DeKooning, two consummate draftsmen whose styles are represented here by the realistically rendered girl and the fluid, calligraphic landscape’ in the latter, a small girl, her back toward us, approaches a pile of burning leaves taller than she is—a miniature volcano. Longest Truce Ever and Proper & Common —Some of My Best Friends Are Nouns also play with traditional genres: the medieval city as depicted before artists mastered perspective, with its jumbles of masonry, and the bucolic forest scene, here contemplated by two inquisitive but hardly decorative crows. Birth of the Audubon Venus is a nude figure study of stunning realism and sensuality, but also an allegorical figure in the nineteenth-century style: woman as force of nature. Frida Be You and Me riffs on the title of the 1972 feminist book encouraging kids to question restrictive gender role models, and may incidentally refer to Frida Kahlo, who challenged stereotypes in her semi-autobiographical work; in Beauchamp’s painting, a solemn-looking teenaged girl sits on the floor or ground, kneading her hands, enlarged because they are extended toward the viewer, with strings of red and white paint squeezed from between her fingers; it can be interpreted as premonitory or symbolic, like Renaissance depictions of baby Jesus playing with toy crosses and flails, or as a metaphor for artistic creation derived from profound feeling, in the Van Gogh/Munch/Pollock mold. The two Resolution de Fleur paintings depict the same model, wearing a floral-print dress, seated, and dramatically lit in a dark interior, the first loosely rendered, with the face actually ‘out of focus,’ and the second, more ‘finished’—a nice conflation of the styles of, say, John Singer Sargent and Gerhard Richter. Two more related paintings, these depicting traditional bedroom suites, Blue Four-Poster and Red Four-Poster, lack the stylistic playfulness of the other works, offering instead the plaisir promulgated by Matisse a century ago with his ideal of paintings that would be as restful as armchairs for tired businessmen, not the sordid contemporary delights of real beds with real stained sheets. Those who love painting’s traditional pleasures and also enjoy intellectual provocations in the contemporary mode will find much to peruse and consider in Beauchamp’s generous, lively, irreverent painted world.