Stephen Beal

Stephen Beal
Recent Paintings

Published on the occasion of exhibition 22
10.5 x 8 in. softcover; 74 pp., 31 color plates
$20.00 + tax, available from the gallery

Forward by Carol Becker,
Dean Columbia School of the Arts

Commentary by George Lawson

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Stephen Beal
— Carol Becker, New York, October 2010

All paintings use line, shape, color, and texture, but not all are purely about these elements. Steve Beal’s gorgeous, dare I say radiant paintings incorporate the bones of the work, the scaffolding, the process, the getting ready to take, and the contemplation before, the plunge. But what if the getting ready is the plunge, as it seems to have been for artists such as Agnes Martin, Alfred Jensen, Piet Mondrian, and Beal himself, who all play with or reference the grid? The meticulous structure of repetition within which they all find coherence pulls us in, whirls us about, and finally leaves us at the center of our own interiority.

The paintings are about optical speed and rhythm, about fast color, slow color, establishing an internal relationship between tonalities from which the feeling—our feeling—is derived. This response is so elusive that we probably would not claim these paintings to be “abstract” because we’d then have to ask, abstracted from what? Maybe they are paintings about practice—about practicing the art of making a luminous painting and of having the effect and the effort appear minimal when in fact they are not. With a serious interest in music and a long history of playing in bands, Steve Beal would know that one practices scales to get ready for the performance and sometimes even to absorb these gradations into a riff during the performance. In these paintings, we are moving up and down the scales, interweaving, or floating on top of, the color, twisting and turning our sometimes dizzying response as it focuses on the interplay between vibration and absence.

How does one prepare to make such work? How does one prepare to view it? Perhaps, in each case, by stripping away everything except a contemplative state of mind, which allows the immediacy to emerge. It would appear that Steve Beal leaves us just enough room to enter and just enough to depart, allowing us to breathe in the emptiness of an otherwise full-up world. In that vacant painterly space we experience how our minds or our genetic codes might be structured, that is to say, repetitive, rhythmic, symmetrical patterns of varying velocities and effects that seem so familiar and motivating not because they stand in for something, but because they themselves are something—a seductive mirroring of human consciousness through the vehicle of light.

Warp and Weft: The Painting of Stephen Beal
George Lawson, San Francisco, September 2010

Stephen Beal paints panels of relatively small scale in monochromes or closely toned harmonics, his paint marks organized into systemically determined patterns within a penciled grid structure. The grid enjoys a well-established history in modernism and yet Beal manages to claim it as his own, largely through the sensitivity of his touch. The generative power of Beal’s paintings belies both the intimacy of their scale and the tradition in which they are steeped.

My initial reaction to Beal’s paintings on first seeing them in a two-person show at Mark Wolfe’s gallery was to delight in their tuned rhythms and the quiet resonance of their color. I was surprised by the authority with which these modestly sized works commanded the space on the gallery walls that surrounded them. I then found myself completely caught up in the nuances of the paint. Only after pulling my nose away from the surface did I start to realize how rigorous their patterned organization really was. Pulled back in for a close view by Beal’s seemingly flagrant working methodology, I began to explore just how they were made. I was doing fine in my deconstruction until I came up against the mystery of Beal’s real accomplishment. I couldn’t pin down how the paintings managed to cross over, past a repetitive staccato into blushing imagery, as they surely did. What made these works that were so logical and reductive in their inception transcend the means of their making?

Beal builds paintings that un-build themselves. He builds upon layers of pre-crafted material choices, incremental measurements and tactile rituals to arrive paradoxically at an immaterial and incalculable result: radiance. Before he even begins to paint, he already knows his image will adhere to the plane. He knows the shape, dimensions and fabric of his support. He has chosen his medium, the kind of paint he will use, and his brush, the tool with which he will apply it. He has measured the spacing of the warp and weft of his penciled armature, selected his colors, and established a regular percussion for the laying down of his stroke, a system. The relative scale of his mark is already calculated, the rhythm of his mark making well-established. Why then is the aura of each finished painting so keenly individuated, and the final gathering into a resolved painted image always accompanied by such a surprise?

The hierarchal progression from mere stuff to the stuff of passion is Beal’s real process, a kind of slow crescendo. This accumulative build is common to many of his colleagues painting in other modes, but Beal’s tracks are more easily traced than others because of the open quality of his image, and because the very nature of the grid is to splay things out. Peculiar to Beal’s art in a milieu of abstraction, he has chosen to work with a subject, for the grid in his paintings functions not only as an underlying structure, the bones of his painted body, but also as a motif, much like a portrait or bowl of fruit might have in another time and place. With this choice he is responsive to this time and place, for we are culturally acclimated to the grid, from the sense impressions of our cities and fields to the implications of the distributed networks that link us all together. The grid as endlessly varied thing to paint has in a sense become our new Madonna and Child.

We have grown accustomed to the ratcheting focus of digital imagery and how a screen of pixels that is reducible at close scrutiny to math in its dispersion will coalesce into organic form as we zoom out, from anonymous dots to a familiar face. When we zoom in again and the face once again disintegrates into points on a grid, we speak of this as a limit of resolution. The short strokes of Beal’s painting also merge at a short distance into values, chromatic and cultural, manifest in color and light and driven by a disciplined work ethic. They do not, however, break down upon closer viewing. They do not lose resolution. On the contrary, his mark reveals the other pole of Beal’s radiant imagery and the ineffable ingredient that lifts his work beyond the predictability of mechanical standards. A closer viewing reveals his physical presence. We can track his breathing and his heartbeat, and the sudden intrusion of a noise outside the studio door. Through the vestiage of his touch, we can track his humanity.

I described Beal’s spectrum from tactile to radiant as a polarity, like sliding a bead along a wire between two designated points. Polarities are a tempting pitfall in any discussion of painting— line versus color, abstraction versus figuration, content versus form, and so on. More appropriate to the grid base of Beal’s work in particular, and I susect more elucidating to all painting in general, would be an approach in quadrant, as in a Myers/Briggs-style test of the personality types, indicating strong and weak functions. Beal as image maker is a personality with it sfunctions firing strongly on all four cylinders. His preparation draws on a strong thinking function, his touch on a well-developed sensate function, and his color on an elastic and healthy intuition. Finally, though these might not seem at first glance to be particularly expressionistic works, the strength of the feeling function in a Beal painting is manifest in its territorialimperative, the commanding reach with which a small panel can hold a wall.

The paintings in this exhibition are clustered into four groups, with titles that hint at the underlying structure of their patterned distribution of strokes: 1-4-5, Doubled, Twofer, and the lyrical handle which should apply in spirit to all Beal’s painting, Beau Soleil. The most recent painting is left untitled and hints at the open possibilities of works yet to come. Alternating between oil paint and an acrylic gouache medium on thinly washed wood panels of his own attentively calibrated make, Beal manages to set aside the demands of an already full life and maintain a productive studio regimen. He has spoken of the deep pleasure he takes in his process:

“ It starts with the craft of making the supports—all of them wood panels (vertical grain fir) that are carefully constructed. Then preparing the grounds and the slow process of laying out the grids is like the ritual of practicing scales in music—it is physically repetitive but also prepares you for a deeper connection to the music—or in my case the act of painting. The grid then becomes a format to explore the color— or perhaps more the value—of the paint. I am always interested in the way the paintings change as the grids ‘fill up’. I’m
interested in materials—the surface quality of the paint, from dull to shiny, and the interaction of the grounds and grids with the painted surfaces. When the paintings are successful, they often can expand and ‘hold’ the wall. “

Beal cites painters with almost monastic lifestyles as influences, such as Agnes Martin, and he has established a painting practice of his own that rivals a Zen adept’s in its attention to form and openness to satori-like flashes of breaking insight. His mode is inspired. His product is inspiring. The very word inspiration is linked to breath, and finally it is the breath of these paintings that is greater than the sum of their parts. They have heart. They reveal themselves with the rhythmic diastole and systole of ever-circulating perennial values.

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