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The Sunday Star-Ledger
March 29, 1998
Three Jersey City Museum exhibitions mix media, messages
Talking about contemporary art these days is like dropping a thousand ping-pong balls in a steel drum: Every artist is his own ping-pong ball, with his own sound to make.
Three concurrent shows at the Jersey City Museum, through next month only emphasize the fact that, stylistically speaking, the big ping-pony ball is very much up in the air at the moment.
The first show features a full-blown painter of wall-sized, realistic oils; the next displays an abstract artist who makes his art out of lace doilies, and the last displays the sculpture of a well-known Jersey City art activist, works he has cleverly fashioned out of kids' toys and melted wax and then painted in the garishly intense colors we only see in childish dreams. -
Putting art history through a Cuisinart like this is fun for critics, and probably for artists too, but it has its risks, particularly for more formal works untouched by the spirit of Pop. Both Martin Beck's "White" a series of tightly painted caricatures of white American culture and Orlando Cuevas "Toys" practically air-Pop all over you, leaving David Ambrose's series of painted compositions on lace (each named for a different European Gothic cathedral) seem rather wilted.
It would be hard to find a common language in realistic painting so immediately comprehensible to large groups of people as Cuevas has but, perhaps surprisingly, Martin Beck has done just that. His work, while it makes definite compositional references to a wide variety of art historical sources, is really keyed to two sources: photography, of course, and a style of figurative painting taught at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where Beck got his bachelor's degree in Fine Arts in 1986.
Beck, who was born in Niagara Falls, N.Y., in 1962, creates political/cultural tableaux that savagely mock middle-class white American values hence the show's title, "White."
Paintings like "Big Wheel," with its gun-toting Anglo children on tricycles juxtaposed with riot-helmeted cops surrounding a prone black youth, are hard to. misread. When he works in a long, low rectangle format, creating a frieze of sport-clothed American figures as in "Tarzan's Hollywood Party" 1996) or "Lush Life" (1994), with its central portrait of Joey Buttafuoco, probably the best painting here you can't help but think of that '80s painter of suburban erotic dyspepsia, Eric Fischl.
But where Fischl painted peep-hole pictures about middle-class shame, Beck paints shamelessness the lurid violence implied by "Corn Dog" (1996-7) and explicitly invoked by "Lazy" (1997). "Lazy" (Anreus says the title refers to what the artist himself considers to be its heavy-handed imagery) collages its painted figures together into an entirely arbitrary space. This brings details to the fore its flapping American flag revealing a swastika beneath, the starsnbars hanging on a back wall, a living room carpeted with skulls while simultaneously telling the whole sick consumerist story from infancy to drunkenness (with Christmas shopping along the way), laid out symbolically in the foreground.
This artist is not afraid to paint at the top of his lungs. Beck's handling of pigment is professional, but everywhere subordinated to the themes he's painting. Its chalky flatness works almost as if he's stressing the fact that his painting is no Frenchified thing, but real American art.