Ken Beck

The Boston Globe: Perspectives  September 21, 1994

Now playing at BPL: eggplant and erotic fruit

By Christine Temtin


The 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.


The 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 city's high 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 the library.


Beck 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. deserves better.)


Beck 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. His imagery 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.


The 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.


A 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.


A 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.

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