John Beech, "Container Series Edition"
The peasants of Languedoc used to sign legal documents with abbreviated pictographs - one man was represented by a scythe and another by a plow. His identity was his means of production and he became the object. "Hey, that object, it becomes you!"
Humans cordon off an object with their hands and their minds; they stake claim to it; they ascribe it to others, and it becomes their secret last name. Marcel Duchamp Urinal — he becomes elided with the toilet. Cao-Giang Firework: gunpowder clings to the name. And whereas Dolly Parton and John Currin wrastle over a cultural ownership of the blonded breast, Gertrude Stein alone claims the rose; it's clamped between her mouth in that turtle like head of hers. And John Beech? He is trying the dumpster out for size.
These writers and artists take possession by language, by replication, and by ruination. The respective form of the rose in Stein's case and the dumpster in Beechs, are obliterated, one by mouth and one by brush. She ruins by repeating (a rose is a rose is a rose) and he repeats his ruination (dumpster after dumpster eclipsed in a thick smear of lime green, safety orange, rose pink, cobalt blue ...). And it is through this repeated obliteration that the form becomes visible. Before Beech literally blocked out the dumpster, the dumpster was everywhere — yet unseen. When driving, this is called the blind spot. Through art, Beech restores our vision by returning us to the margin where he has ruined what we previously refused to see, what we wish not to remain, and what we eventually crash into.
Despite Beech's visual debt to minimalism (its preoccupation with reduction and form) (the obvious kinship with David Rabinowitch's early woodcuts, Ellsworth Kelly's immersive relation to color, Donald Judd's love affair with the box, and Baldessari and Ellen Gallagher's color saturated obliterations of the abject) narratives were emerging. But, they were initially, for me, obfuscated by the graceless and non-lyrical sound of the word dumpster and its unfriendly associations: To live in a dump. To take a dump. Your dumpy hips. Ah, always dumped. In Marfa, Texas, where Beech was a Chinati Foundation artist in residence, the Dairy Queen parking lot dumpster is emblazoned with reminders of this relationship in a rural Texan version of wild style graffiti. It reads vertically: Skid Marks! Waste! But we can move through these associations and emerge on the other side of them. This possibility is revealed in Joe Berke's 1965 description of the creative work of a clinical patient, Mary Barnes:
Via his own natural and unself-conscious strokes, Beech takes our cultural waste and returns it to a longer and older conversation about the nature of things (as in what constitutes the material) and what lies in between them. He undermines essentialist notions of meaning by eradicating the center (the literal center of the frame and the object that produced identification). Unlike Mary Barnes, his subversion masks the perverse, internal, and animal. Like a double agent, it borrows the sneaky and light maneuvers of Pop Art — a sweet persuasion back to the object and the abject. Because Beech's use of color simultaneously obliterates and saturates he makes a sunny hole where the identifiable object once resided, one that is evacuated of waste's traces, Zen-like or not.
The periphery of these brilliant and dripping blobs (San Francisco Dumpster, Greenpoint Dumpster, and Brooklyn Dumpster) reminds us that this contemporary American territory is a location of limitless vulnerability — and it demands riot gates, chain link fences, locks and razor wire. Like the dumpster, and through repetition, these secures have become invisible. And yet, Beech leaves them intact. His work is to obliterate the massive, humble structure; and by remaining, these trappings of unlimited security have other work to do. This sets Beech apart from Baldessari, who claimed "there was such a flood of relief, you couldn't believe it felt so satisfying to obliterate these people", referring to the manner in which he painted out the faces of men wielding unchecked power. It is more difficult to locate Beech's pleasure or agenda. I try to parse out the relationship between things — those that brightly pop the context (a blazing orange dumpster) and those (the edges of the alley, the barbed wire on the fence) that skirt our vision despite the fact that they contain us. Is this difficult because he has reached the visual equivalent of the emotional margin? Is he lauding a space that makes us spacey? And spacing out, do I forget the true force of dumpsters and razor wire, the impact of my waste and my fear? Does Beech lighten the load?
by Mary Walling Blackburn