When Mark Beck lived here nearly two decades ago, he was regarded as one of the best local painters we’ve ever had. His “house” paintings—simple compositions frequently featuring two barrack-style houses lushly painted in oil—were selling like hotcakes.
He had big shows throughout California and even Japan, and by the time he left he was a rising star in the American art market, where his work remains in high demand.
His quintessentially American images are stunningly beautiful, nostalgic, and frequently elegiac—recalling a more simple time.
“My paintings represent an interest I have in the traditional image of the United States—particularly the notion of the ‘American Dream’ and how we go about finding it or losing it,” reads his artist’s statement. “I am inspired by this long-held American notion along with a more sober perspective of present-day America: a country that often appears lost, searching, and in opposition to its founding principals. I try to make beautiful paintings [that] convey in a subtle way certain glorifications or realities of our life in America.”
This Saturday, July 16, he returns to Cambria’s Vault Gallery for a 6 to 9 p.m. reception. Beck spoke to New Times by phone.
New Times Your work is often compared to Edward Hopper. In what way do you see similarities or difference?
Mark Beck Oh yeah, I like him a lot and have studied his work. These days I have many other influences and inspirations, but people just don’t recognize them maybe because they’re a little more obtuse and because Hopper is so famous. Others are Andrew Wyeth, Charles Burchfield, Henry Varnum Poor … oh God, a whole bunch of mid-century American painters, loads of ‘em, and lots of musicians and literature.
New Times You’ve been painting images of houses for years, and I recall an earlier conversation we had long ago in which you explained how some of the house paintings were metaphors for human relationships. Do you still think about and employ this idea?
Mark Beck Yeah, I do. I think I use symbols all the time. In fact, almost everything seems to be a symbol of some kind, otherwise I don’t have a reason to paint. It’s easy to make a pretty landscape, but if there’s no meaning behind it, I don’t know where to go, so whenever I make a landscape, there’s a reason behind. I don’t paint those houses quite as spare as I used to. Now it’s more New England-style houses, American Gothic, but I still think of them as symbols of days gone by or Middle America.
New Times You’ve been a full time professional fine artist for more than 20 years now. I’m sure some budding artists would love to know the secret to your success. Got any advice for them?
Mark Beck Um … well, that’s a hard question to answer. I think if you really have to do it, you find a way, and for me it’s always been an intense compulsion. I didn’t know how to approach galleries, but I painted a lot, put the work out there, sometimes in unusual places. Finally an L.A. gallery owner took notice. I knew I had the skill, and painting became a matter of personal survival.
New Times You’ve had dozens of solo shows, some as far away as Japan, your paintings have appeared on TV in the HBO show In Treatment, your work has appeared in magazines and journals, and you’ve won juried painting competitions, but what’s your proudest professional achievement?
Mark Beck I think probably just that I’ve been able to keep on painting. I haven’t had to get a job, though the last couple years seemed like I was going to have to do something else, and I did in fact work a little construction, but since then I’ve sort of doubled down on the painting.
New Times Have you gone the print route? Because for many admirers, your work is simply out of their price range.
Mark Beck Yeah, I have over the years and I have some [prints] for this show. I found a guy who makes great digital prints. And yes, the paintings are expensive. I’ve had, for larger works, prices all the way up to $48,000, if you can believe that, but for an average gallery size painting, they got up to around $25,000. With the current economy, like all artists I know I’ve had to scale back the prices. It’s difficult, but if there’s a demand, which there always has been, you feel pressured to raise your prices.
New Times How’s the resale value been? Surely some of your older works have traded hands.
Mark Beck I had a guy from SLO email me, asking about what I thought a certain paintings was worth. I think the person paid $1,500 for it originally and recently sold it for $5,000.
New Times What else should people know about what you’re doing?
Mark Beck Well, the work I’m doing now is different [than my past work]. There’s more people in ‘em, so it’ll be interesting to people who know my work. I’m using different composition, trying to expand all the time.
Glen Starkey takes a beating and keeps on bleating. Keep up with him via twitter at twitter.com/glenstarkey, friend him at Myspace.com/glenstarkey, or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.