In the first four years of his administration, George W. Bush now infamously coined the term “Ownership Society” as a philosophical goal whereby Americans, regardless of whether or not they had the economic ability to pay for it, could own property. Fast forward to today, when misguided governance, risky lending, irresponsible borrowing, and Wall Street greed collapsed our economy into a culture of joblessness, homelessness, foreclosures, and unfinished housing complexes. This loaded phrase, “Ownership Society,” serves as the title and foundation for Kim Beck’s most recent foray into the intersection of architecture, sculpture, installation, drawing, and text. Traditionally, Beck’s practice has focused on the overlooked, desolate spaces in the landscape, including the flatly bland terrain of Denver where she grew up, the weeds and cracks in the sidewalk, or the garish billboards and lonely telephone poles along the highway. Blending an interest in architecture and the landscape with a deep ambivalence towards nondescript, man-made constructions, her work reflects a disdain for the inevitable progress of commercialization as well as an appreciation for the awkward beauty of these same spaces and objects.
In “Ownership Society,” Beck extrapolates this idea to include the ubiquitous: buildings abandoned mid-construction, houses in foreclosure waiting to be reclaimed, and signage indicating businesses closed and store-wide sales of inventory. Perhaps best epitomized in her petite gouache sketches of houses in foreclosure taken from the Web, these smudgy, romanticized images, simply by nature of their material, convey a romanticized melancholy that hints at the darkness of their source. While the nuances of the social and cultural landscape have always played a role in her work, this turn in Beck’s practice reflects a more overtly political stance. At the same time, the fluctuation between abstraction and representation combined with Beck’s gentle and delicately meticulous use of materials imbues her work with an elegantly beautiful artistic aesthetic that belies their disenchanted beginnings.
“The piece was a new place in nature.” So said Philip Leider in 1970 when he first set eyes upon Michael Heizer’s Double Negative, a massive piece of Land Art located in Mormon Mesa, Nevada. Begun in 1969 and completed a year later, Double Negative consists of two immense incisions in the earth, some 1,500 feet long, 30 feet wide, and 50 feet deep each. Leider recognized the radical nature of Heizer’s proposition. On one hand, he understood that Double Negative was essentially a form made of negative space rather than tangible matter. On the other, he must have perceived that Heizer, by leaving these two indelible cuts in the earth, was reformulating the irrevocable link between culture and nature, or between the man-made, built environment and pure natural growth: for as long as man has been around, one has not existed without the other.Switching gears from the monumental to the liminal, Kim Beck’s practice centers on a desire to understand and then manifest this uniquely personal relationship of an individual to her surroundings. She works in a range of media, including vinyl, cardboard, and paper, as well as a variety of techniques, such as cut-out formations, sculptural aggregations on the floor or wall, multi-part installations, and silk-screened or charcoal drawings on paper. Though operating on a nearly opposing scale to Heizer, Beck’s work is similarly engaged with in-between spaces, theoretically exploring interconnectivity between the built and natural environment and how this is manifested in the landscape. Her subject matter consists of quiet, overlooked spaces and objects: weeds, telephone poles, fences, commercial signage, cracks, and subtle irregularities in the architecture and landscape around her. Blending an interest in architecture and the landscape with a deep ambivalence towards nondescript, man-made constructions, her work reflects a disdain for the inevitable progress of commercialization as well as an appreciation for the flaws and awkwardness of these same spaces and objects.
In his eloquent, historical-cultural travel narrative Landscape and Memory, Simon Schama identifies this mutually intertwined—and at times fraught—relationship between the man-made and natural environment:
“Objectively, of course, the various ecosystems that sustain life on the planet proceed independently of human agency, just as they operated before the hectic ascendancy of Homo sapiens. But it is also true that it is difficult to think of a single such natural system that has not, for better or for worse, been substantially modified by human culture. Nor is this simply the work of the industrial centuries. It has been happening since the days of ancient Mesopotamia. It is coeval with writing, with the entirety of our social existence. And it is this irreversibly modified world, from the polar caps to the equatorial forests, that is all the nature we have.”
We can infer from Schama’s passage that nature and culture are not only symbiotic entities but symbolic constructions of identity: landscape reflects the people around it, and vice versa. The ways in which individuals interpret their built environment vary but such divergent perceptions contribute to those same individuals’ definition of self-identity. Heizer and his ancient Egyptian or pre-Columbian predecessors undoubtedly understood this. Their monuments were as much structures built for civilization as testaments to their own particular relationship and sensibility to the world around them.
Accepting that landscape and personal identity are linked, Beck’s current focus can be connected to her conception of the environment in which she grew up. Born in Riverside, New Jersey, Beck discusses a pivotal moment in her history when, as a toddler, her parents packed up the family and moved to Denver, Colorado. Recalling a modern-day version of the pioneering American West, Beck’s family left behind her Jewish east-coast roots and family members for the large-scale, anonymous open plains and mountains of the Midwest to “start afresh.” Though she was too young when she moved to have remembered New Jersey, the decision by her parents to leave their roots behind left an indelible impression on her. Gradually, as Beck grew up, the telephone poles on long stretches of Colorado highway, the weeds in tree-less parking lots, the strangely uniform houses of the Denver suburbs, and the “blank faces” of wooden fences became meaningful markers for this lost or hidden identity.
Beck literally mines the imagery of such fences as subject matter for her most recent work, Perforated: Building Site, 2007, an installation consisting of silkscreened color images of fences overlaid on found corrugated cardboard with cut-out portions of the chain-link holes. Referencing both generic suburban fences and uniform enclosures found at construction sites, the artist has said the piece emerged from her philosophical questioning revolving around the simple but immensely provocative concept of a barrier: “Which side is in? Which is out?” Stacked against one another and leaning against the wall, the works function formally as part sculpture, part landscape, part painting, while philosophically they question the potential contradictory interpretations of a single man-made object in the landscape. In conversation, she revealed that her favorite part of the fence was a small irregularity: a cell-like blip in the symmetrical holes of the links, indicating a small damaged spot perhaps where perhaps a piece of machinery poked through. One has the sense that Beck looked at the fence, engaged by it, until the precise nature of her fascination emerged. Returning to the text Landscape and Memory, Schama wrote the following:
"A curious excavator of traditions stumbles over something protruding above the surface of the commonplaces of contemporary life. He scratches away, discovering bits and pieces of a cultural design that seems to elude coherent reconstruction but which leads him deeper into the past. Each of the chapters that follow might be thought of as an excavation, beginning with the familiar, digging down through layers of memories and representations toward the primary bedrock, laid down centuries or even millennia ago, and then working up again toward the light of contemporary recognition."
Heizer, building on a grand scale, scratched away deep into the earth. Beck engages in visual “digging”— closely observing elements of the landscape until something previously unseen emerges, often in the smallest of details or the most generic of spaces. This is Beck’s process, leading her towards the discovery of a new place in nature.