Wish We Were Here: Lawrence Beck and the Grand Tour
Lawrence Beck: Italian Pictures at Sonnabend Gallery
January 12 to February 9, 2013
536 West 22nd Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, 212-627-1018
Italian Pictures, Lawrence Beck’s exhibition of landscape photography fills Sonnebend’s cavernous galleries. Beck has familial ties and childhood memories of Italy, and his images of gardens, villas and monuments, both privileged and public environments, constitute a kind of 21st-century Grand Tour: we gaze upon the views and imagine we are there.
Like stable mates Bernd and Hilda Becher, Beck makes large photographs. Using an 8 x 10 field camera, they invite us to observe and scrutinize hard facts. But the artist captures mood as well. The sheer size of these images, nearly six feet, coupled with a high clarity of detail, serve to draw the viewer in.
Beck is at ease with a historical landscape tradition that dates back to Giorgione’s moody Tempesta. Ninfa V, a complex landscape composition, beckons entry into its intimate architectural ruins. Beck also demonstrates sensitivity to shadow play and tonal gradation, particularly when capturing the hypnotic effects of reflective light on water in images such as Marlia I, Villa Borghese I and Caserta I.
Beck addresses the relationship of architecture within landscape, of both the tension and harmony of artifice and entropy. The botanical garden and water lily series of the last fifteen years has sometimes included genus identification tags within lush compositions, mediating beauty with indexation. Today Beck reassesses the stagecraft associated with the classical virtues of balance and frontality. But how does one approach the grand symmetry of a villa or opulent garden that has for centuries signified cultivated beauty and established viewpoint? Conventional perspective – whether in Anselm Kiefer’s interiors and landscapes or Julie Mehretu’s stadiums – amounts, in these examples, to an effective use of symmetry in painting and graphic collage respectively. In straight photography, symmetry is a tougher proposition. In darkened theatre interiors, Hiroshi Sugimoto has mastered it. Even Atget found the idea challenging at Versailles and Luxembourg Gardens.
Beck’s approach can seem disarmingly neutral, as in Villa Pisani II. Here, seemingly deadpan frontality suggests a ready-made portrait with its symmetry, timeless beauty and cultivation. By including unexpected detail and establishing warmth and subtle value, Beck negotiates the pitfalls of calculated classicism. In Villa Della Porta Bozzolo I, the spatial recession of richly textured vessels is bathed in subtly scraping sunlight. Golden tones emerge from stonework and foliage alike. Beck’s real power lies in the aesthetic choices he makes about detail. His subjects are obviously robust, but content resides in the soft power of subtle formal decisions. Resistance is futile, our buttons have been pushed, the image is simply, undeniably present. We can try to look away but can’t shake the expectation and desire of experiencing the scene.
Beck’s weirdly captivating Roman aqueduct images document a still fading classical past. Once essential to a functioning Roman infrastructure, the successive arches and flat planes of these monumental structures appear to have been put out to pasture in an arid no-man’s land. His seemingly standard frontal point of view is anything but. He is not documenting but reassessing and reframing the subject. In Roman Aqueduct II, the stark simplicity is surreal, bringing to mind the landscapes of Yves Tanguy and the exaggerated scale of Magritte. Through Beck’s astute cropping and iconic frontality, these Stonehenge-like monumental ruins dance like calligraphy across a page. As our eye weaves and darts in, out and around the openings of the aqueducts, the fundamental elements of contemporary visual imagery stare back at us. Our contemporary lens senses repetition, seriality, decoration and void. Beck also ekes out incongruities as close inspection reveals soft inclusions and traces of contemporary life. The small dome of a twentieth century church peeks out over the horizon line on the far left. Through an arch in both Aqueduct I and Parco Degli Acquedoti I, appears a seemingly anachronistic horizontal sliver of recent housing construction nearly indistinguishable from the bushy landscape of the horizon.
These details don’t announce themselves but are given to the attentive viewer. The assertion is that at some point, the newest entries in the landscape will be long gone while the Roman ruins remain. That fatalistic yet romantic notion connects Beck’s images to Andre Giroux’s painting of the Claudian Aqueduct (1826) to be seen in the Metropolitan Museum’s current exhibition, Path of Nature – French Paintings 1785-1850. Giroux’s romantic notion of the grand tour is barely operational for a contemporary audience. But it’s important to note that Giroux himself took up landscape photography shortly after making this painting, pointing the way for an artist like Beck to re-imagine the subject once again.