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David Becker: Unruly Muse
Ann Nathan Gallery
This is difficult work to love, or even come to terms with. One could wish that Becker's humans were not so base, so sordid, so bestial. Taken in quantity, they become a bitter pill. Some are out and out grisly; others ghastly with lewd and savage acts. Often both. David Becker: Unruly Muse is a mirror that holds up for inspection the grimmer impulses of human nature.
Becker's strange communes are a vision of hell, all the more hellish because it is represented in ordinary human terms. Hieronymous Bosch's similarly hellish visions, to which Becker's paintings may be likened, inspire an equal frisson of freakishness and baseness. Unlike Bosch's weird fantasies, however, Becker's abhorrent acts are all possible, and not so very far removed from the veneer of civilized life. We think that we would not, could not, possibly perform such acts (not us!). But there is still that part of the everyday psyche that hearkens to sensational news of murders, cinematic horror, the suspense of gruesome happenings whether real or fictional. How else to explain the proliferation of forensic crime shows as popular entertainment? The images of Unruly Muse may be taken as commentary on the human condition, psychologically, socially, or politically: man's capacity for aberrant behavior, the crudeness and conflict capable in human interaction, and politically, as a metaphor for the unending lusts and hungers of nations to devour one another.
These sordid communes seem to have been bred to a lowest common denominator of baseness and lust. In Sighting In (oil on linen: 36.5 x 57.5 in.) not a few of the bizarre cabal of characters are engaged in sexually-driven acts, each involving strange violations. Sex here is a deviance, a hunger, less an expression of desire than a fulfillment of the drive to dominate or humiliate. The presence of fully-clad figures in the scene, and their apparent unconcern with the activities being enacted around them, intensifies the crudeness of the acts where they occur. Lewdness and anger receive free rein here, and one can draw unpleasant parallels to the strains and follies of modern society -- fractured phenomena such as the increasing intensity of road rage or the unnatural interest in the most outré explicitness as fodder for television or movies. Other works, less brutal, still carry with them suggestions of unnatural behavior. The exposed loins of the characters in Union Grove Picnic, 1975 (etching, artist's proof: 28 x 35.5 in.) are an uncomfortable bareness, halfway between vulnerability and intent to molest.
Becker's nudes are pale and raw in their nakedness. It is not the lush, radiant flesh of a renaissance vision, but the wrinkled, undercooked look of Midwesterners stripping down after a long winter. There is little of glamour about it, and this gives these images a prosaic reality, a disturbing down-to-earth feeling that these could be your neighbors, or perhaps some inbred rural dystopia, hopefully far from here. If there are flavors of Bosch, there are also tastes of a perverse Brueghel, in the warm colors, stocky peasant figures, and apparent rural settings of several of the larger paintings. Front Loader (oil on linen: 21.5 x 17.5 in.) could easily be an envisioning of three rural men cooperating in a harvest scene, its country feel upheld by the rich earth tones of the background, and the crisp accents of saturated red in the harness of the foreground figure and on the arms of the aforementioned piece of equipment. That the three are working to load a fleshy red-haired woman, clad only in a swath of gray towel, into the bucket of the front-loader is a disturbing disconnect, leaving questions open as to what exactly is being depicted.
Among the paintings are selections illustrating the Seven Deadly Sins, a subject to which the artist, with his potent faculty for social critique, is aptly suited. He pulls no punches. His stocky male and female figures are a brutal Adam and Eve, providing a double critique on both the sexes and sins as this pair of figures enact the various sins in a distempered Eden. Anger (oil on paper: 31 x 22 in.) is direct in its portrayal of a strangling by wire, but Lust (oil on paper: 30 x 23 in.) is even more effective in its suggestiveness, where the stance leaves to the imagination the actual nature of the act between the two. An earlier version of Lust (oil on paper: 31 x 22 in.), in which a low-held knifeblade provides chilling punctuation to the pair's kama sutra pose, is more gruesome, but its suggestion of cinematic thriller dominates to the detriment of the commentary.
If one has ever doubted that human nature may be wicked and loathsome, or at least that such predilections lie latent beneath our everyday transactions, David Becker's work dispels that doubt. The exhibition includes works in oil, etchings, and charcoal drawings, showing the artist's facility for rendering in a variety of media. All reflect Becker's hideous, stimulating imagery. If David Becker: Unruly Muse is hard to love, it is equally hard to dismiss. But be forewarned. This is strong stuff.
David Becker: Unruly Muse is at Ann Nathan Gallery through October 13, 2007.
--Katherine R. Lieber
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