Mark Beck is a tough guy to hunt down. The former San Luis Obispan took up residence in Albuquerque in 2001, but he’s back in town—briefly—along with his wife, Carmela; their 8-year-old daughter, Zoe; and some 30-odd canvases depicting mournful grave markers, bodies of water both serene and rollicking, and mammoth bone-colored houses.
When he came up with the title for his exhibit at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art—the lure that drew him back to the Central Coast—Beck thought it was an original idea. But “Tyranny of Beauty,” it turns out, is also the title of an album by Tangerine Dream, as well as the title of numerous articles musing on our culture’s obsession with physical perfection. Beck opted to stick with the title anyway, citing the fact that it expresses the pressure he feels to maintain his 20-year trend of professional success.
“I’ve noticed that in the market there’s always a demand for decorative paintings. I try to conceal meaning in the paintings so I can make it through the market but I can also get some meaning,” revealed Beck, surrounded by revelers at what turned out to be Carmela’s 50th birthday, which I’d accidentally crashed. Living with an artist, Carmela must be accustomed to such moments, because she handled it with aplomb, offering me a plate of lamb and a glass of wine. Beck later credited Carmela with handling the business side of his art career—putting together his website and helping with pricing—as well as offering aesthetic critiques of his works in progress. And he credited his daughter Zoe—who briefly interrupted the impromptu interview to offer her father food, looking like something of a roguish Alice in Wonderland in a floral party dress—with contributing to a recent more markedly political bent in his work. As Zoe grows older, Beck can’t help but ponder the world she’s going to inherit.
“These really are the first political paintings,” he said of the show featuring work primarily created during the last year, which will be on display at the SLOMA through Aug. 18. “They’re much more pointedly political, to take a slogan from a bumper sticker like that, but you could look at the painting and not know that, which I like. Since it’s painting, it needs to be approached visually first. Even if the message is very good.”
The painting in question is a $3,800 oil-on-linen piece titled These Colors Don’t Run. In traditional Beck fashion, the focus is a house, although a shabbier version than his go-to seaside home, with blue, red, and white sheets on a clothesline outside. Beck had been reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the notion of white privilege and what he called the country’s “dark racial history” were at the forefront of his mind. Of course, to the viewer who doesn’t have access to Beck’s thoughts, the painting could be taken as an expression of patriotism. And it was, in fact, while on exhibit in Albuquerque.
“Some guy saw it, and he said ‘Semper fi,’” Beck chuckled.
The subject of racial tension and bigotry appears more directly in a row of six small—by Beck standards—portraits. Klan Kween is a $4,500 profile of a woman with towering Southern belle hair against the background of a Confederate flag.
“I wanted to paint a Southern belle. I had just seen Django Unchained, which was hugely inspiring to me. Its message to the South was such a big fuck you,” Beck explained. He also admitted that he initially thought the Confederate flag was a little over the top, but ultimately decided to keep it.
Two paintings over is The Traveler, which Beck calls “one of the best paintings I’ve ever done.” It’s one of only four pieces listed as not for sale—the prices for the rest range from $900 to $35,000—and the only black figure to make an appearance in the show. Two paintings to the right of the traveler, Zoe gives the viewer a hard look from the canvas. Actually, it’s Zoe as her father imagines she’ll look as a teenager, when she’ll begin to grapple with the same political and social issues her father is now tentatively exploring in his work. The Skeptic is, like The Traveler, not for sale. When asked if it’s ever difficult to part with his work, Beck immediately shakes his head no. He’s made so many over the years that it’s hard to get too worked up over parting with them, although there are a couple he wishes he hadn’t sold.
Despite Beck’s decade in New Mexico, his Central Coast roots show through in “Tyranny of Beauty,” which is riddled with white houses overlooking pristine coastlines. Beck started painting his trademark white houses while living on Orcutt Road, surrounded by white buildings. He used the houses to express lack of communication, loneliness, isolation, though he admits he “always infused it with a healing light.” In fact, there’s no real trace of the Southwest in Beck’s work, with the exception of grave markers from a 19th century graveyard in Albuquerque and Drowned Dog, a haunting and evocative watercolor of a dead canine found in an irrigation ditch filled with water diverted from the Rio Grande. But if you didn’t have the origin story directly from Beck, you’d probably never guess he’d set foot in New Mexico, much less that he actually lives and paints there.
“I’m not really interested in painting places,” he said by way of explanation. “When I paint water, it’s more for symbolic value or just philosophical content, emotional content. When I paint trees, there’s usually some symbolism in it for me.”
Just don’t expect a rubric detailing the various meanings of the handful of symbols that repeat throughout the exhibit. Not because Beck is reluctant to discuss the meanings beneath the attractive surface of his paintings; in fact, he seems to relish insight afforded by strangers and friends who happen across his work. Mostly, though, Beck just doesn’t work with a formula in mind, and sometimes he requires time, or conversations with strangers, to shed insight into his work.
“They’re just made in a small town in Albuquerque,” Beck said of the statuesque grave markers that make an appearance in several pieces in “Tyranny of Beauty.” “They’re not made by Michelangelo, but they’re beautifully done. I use them as a vehicle for talking about other things—and I’m not sure what other things.”
But the truest tyranny of art is, perhaps, the fact that an artist’s work is never at an end. Despite a 20-year career as a painter without the added stress and misery of a “day job,” Beck can’t help but ponder the road ahead, the endless trek toward an ideal of perfection that haunts even the most talented of artists. With the bouquet of lamb and summer flora clinging to fresh Edna air and the sound of laughter as a placeholder for Yelda Brothers and Co, who will take the nonexistent stage just as soon as the lamb has been consumed, the artist brought up the work of painter Edward Hopper, to whom he’s often compared.
“Hopper is so stark and unfailingly lonely,” he mused. “I tend to put a big dollop of hope in them. I’d like to figure out how not to do that. I kind of look at my work and I’m afraid sometimes it’s sentimental. And that torments me.”
Fortunately, Beck’s painterly demons did not interfere with his appetite.
Managing Editor Ashley Schwellenbach loathes the tyranny of word count. Send spare space to firstname.lastname@example.org.