Boston painter Ken Beck is represented in the Museum of Fine Arts' current
still‑life show, "Grand Illusions," by a large work called
"Duckbill Hat." Anyone tantalized by the grandeur and
goofiness of the giant hat whose ducky aspect Beck emphasizes will want to
check out the more extensive selection of the artist's work in "Ken
Beck: A Retrospective of Drawings," in the Wiggin Gallery of the
Boston Public Library through Oct. 18.
Wiggin show features 67 drawings that span the period from 1980 to the
present. It documents not only what the artist was up to during those
years, but also the library's level of commitment to Boston art. The
profile museums are often criticized for what area artists perceive as
lack of support; at the same time, the BPL has quietly forged ahead,
amassing thousands of works on paper by more than 700 artists with ties
to Boston and displaying them in frequent exhibitions. The man responsible
for this huge collection is Sinclair Hitchings, whose quaintly British
title is Keeper of Prints. Bernard Chaet, Gretchen Ewert, Aaron Fink,
Conley Harris, Michael Mazur nd
Maud Morgan are among the well known artists whose work he's bought for
himself, in a talk he gave at
the BPL over the summer, digressed from the subject of his stylistic development
to an appreciation of free public libraries ‑ including the
Peabody Institute Library in Danvers, where he grew up. "That library
was my escape and my doorway," he said. On the BPL collection, he
noted that "as a reflection of contemporary Boston art, ... as a
resource for future study, and as a tangible manifestation of visible
institutional support for and faith in the art being made here, this
collection is unequaled in my view by anything else in the city."
(The space Hitchings has in which to exhibit the collection, though, is
sadly inadequate, a drab room with poorly lit glass cases. The art.
is an artist who is happy - and who makes us happy - with traditional
materials. In an age when anything from recyclables to seaweed is
considered art material, Beck uses paper, paint, charcoal and pastel.
ranges widely, but in some of his best works, he bestows human qualities
on eggplants, teddy bears, even fireplugs. His drawings of people in this
show, on the other hand, are more one-dimensional and ordinary, except
for a series of views of the backs of heads that emphasize the
vulnerability and curious individuality of that part of the body.
earliest work in the show, "Crawling Eggplants," is an exuberant
view into a crate filled with shiny eggplants, their purple skins
occasionally giving way to a brown that hints at mortality. The 1990
"Pear Hug" belongs to Beck's erotic fruit series, only here
the two pears curve together companionably, like an old married couple
sitting on a bench.
1983 drawing of a "Duckbill Hat" is slouchy, the grommets
reading as beady little eyes, the dark brim suggesting a slobbering mouth.
Even as ducks go, this one is no star. There's also a "Rubber
Ducky" drawing, wearing an expression akin to the one in Munch's
"The Scream." While Beck's animal‑related works may be funny,
cute they're not. Even the teddy bears are sphinx like and mute, some
squashed, some towering.
late 1980s series of drawings of chains verges on abstraction and is
intriguing in the confetti like marks Beck uses. Diffuse and ethereal up
close, at a distance they coalesce into muscular links. Color erupts in a
series of cylinder drawings, but Beck is best in black and white, and
nowhere in this show is he better than in the recent "Fireplug"
drawings, which he sees as objects and metaphors for the male condition.
(They, are, he says, about "the containment of power and its
channeling and transformation into life‑sustaining activity.")
The flat, blurred black forms thrusting into the air are icons - but, in
keeping with Beck's wry api3roach. they're faintly comical ones.