PRINT February 1977

Bill Beckley’s Lies

BILL BECKLEY’S FIRST SEXUAL EXPERIENCE, 1974, sandwiches a brief text horizontally between two photographs of a wooded shore. The view across the water seems to illustrate apart of the central story; the bushes in the foreground might conceal onlookers. But then the way one photograph is black and white and the other colored strikes an analogy with the fact that the parents of the narrator’s girl graduated from black and white to color television. Uncertainty casts a doubt over all. The tale is locked and lost within the language of the telling.

There is another version with a single photograph shaped like a TV screen, but again the effect is the same. The gist of it is the poignancy of coincidence, as if reality were doubling back on itself and the stuff of existence were somehow warped out of true.

Photographs as photographs and texts as texts involve just such a doubling-back experience, and sometimes this becomes the theme of Bill Beckley’s art. In Drop and Bucket, 1975, a drop from an off-center tap is funnelled down the side of a triangular photograph toward a bucket underneath—as if the drop knew where the artist was going to crop the image. The Interrelation of In and On, from 1972, is a story about living “in” a particular place, but also “on” a particular hillside. Interrelation begins with “in” and ends with “on”—as if the word itself could relate us to the earth. If so, it binds us to a shifting base; it was the prospect of a landslide that awakened the narrator’s consciousness of living on that particular tract of land.

Bill Beckley’s art is about a loss of ground-line. It deals with insubstantial things, with rainbows, signs and symbols, coincidences, figures hiding in bushes, nursery rhymes, proverbs, myths, drips of water, shadows, cakes you have already eaten, dreams, superstitions about groundhogs, popsicles that melt in your mouth. There is no coordination of perspective and no hierarchy of values. Each experience registers specifically. Abstractions, like numbers, do not really exist, so 10 and 20 may be the ends of the rainbow in disguise. As his work sets forth no stable outlook (not even an implicit one), one can only generalize negatively. The world defies reason. But Beckley is no mystic because he offers no access to alternative truth; nor is he a nihilist, because he does not consistently deny possibility.

At times it seems only the focus of his own attention that has shifted. On Groundhog Day, in early February, he is watching a groundhog, but he does not notice if it has seen its own shadow (more winter is supposed to follow if it does), because he is distracted by a pretty girl; it is her photograph that accompanies the text. Coming to a fork in the road, he chooses the left branch when a snake sticks out its forked tongue and points in that direction. He accepts it as an omen without thinking that the snake’s forked tongue is a by-word for deception. A whole group of works begins prosaicly, as if stating fact: a discussion of the technical problems of photography. But it degenerates into sexual fantasy when three female assistants appear.

In the prevailing uncertainty as to powers of memory and concentration, the “I” that figures in these stories is a very ambiguous quantity. It comes across as more than just a literary device, although there is no sense of truth to either the facts or spirit of his own biography. The mood is regressive, constantly slipping back into vague sexual longing that sometimes steps over into pornography, or vague unease that seems to hover on the brink of panic.

The beginnings go back to 1969 when he was a student at Tyler School of Art. The point of departure was Conceptual art, but he never grasped it analytically. On the walls of galleries he saw not ideas, but photographs and texts. If they claimed to be records of Earthworks or body art, wasn’t that just another sort of subject-matter, like landscape painting and figure painting ail over again? If they purported to be dealing with fact, why should he accept them at face value? As a student lampooning the pretensions of the new establishment, he really did chop down a cherry tree—or so he assured me in a recorded interview. Not only that, but he swore to the event before a public notary, and can produce the documents to prove it. His accumulation of evidence serves only to compound the doubt.

Many of Bill Beckley’s works have the feel of student humor about them. They are the sort of jokes you groan at rather than laugh at. Perversely, one remembers the worst Bill Beckley joke, not the best. I find myself attempting an explanation as far-fetched as the tales themselves, that the groan is the ultimate symbol, the final response to a cosmic shaggy-dog story.

On balance, I would say the worst Bill Beckley joke is probably the one about the banana skin. Photographs of footprints alternate, left and right, across the gallery floor, until they meet a photograph of a banana skin and step aside. Defensively, one might start to talk about the willful confusion of signifier and signified—as if the photographs ought to behave like the things they represent—but even that much jargon sticks in the throat. There were jokes like this before they invented semiotics; they appeal to something more primitive than the linguistic analysis of signs. Literally primitive!—there were footprints of gods in Neolithic rock-paintings, and in that case, too, the image functioned as the real thing. It may be that of all Bill Beckley’s works, this is the one that touches the deepest cultural and psychological roots. It is just another facet of the paradox that it is also the most glib, the most totally devoid of conviction.

There are other pieces that pan out in á similar way In performance from 1971, a singer lifted himself on exercise bars and varied the note in accordance with his relation to the lines of the bars. He just sang “a-r-e,” but is that “are” meant to be something like the irreducibly minimal token of the plurality of being? And could there be a note of despair about the multiple backdrops of eternity? Just how far should one go? One may lob a pebble in a lake (or a drip in a bucket) and hit exactly the spot intended, but does that give the artist copyright on even the remotest ripples that ensue? Does Bill Beckley even deserve credit for the fact that this sort of question comes up so much more often in relation to his work than anybody else’s I can think of at the moment?

In that his art takes its start from a partially negative response to Conceptual art, it takes its place with the most original work of the ’70s. But whereas John Baldessari singing Sol LeWitt’s Sentences on Conceptual Art to the tune of Tea for Two and Camptown Races may be a better joke, it does not invite the same open, wild, wide-ranging speculation beyond the context of art. Moreover, Baldessari meets Sol LeWitt on an artist-to-artist basis. One of the few things that can be said about that “I” in Bill Beckley’s stories is that it indicates a person responding as a human being and not in a professional capacity.

When Bill Beckley began to make art out of the photographs and texts of conceptual documentation, he involved himself with a reduction in the number of words to what could be comfortably dealt with standing up in an art gallery. If, in the process, the paper became thicker, the ideas very often got thinner, and then spread themselves over an even larger area of wall space. One might want to argue if thinness could also rationalize itself as some sort of latent metaphor, but one thing is certain. There is a shift to an esthetic that frankly aims to please.

The texts are nice and large and bold, the photographs have bright colors or, when they are black and white, crisp tonal contrasts just like the magazines on newsstands. It may be, for some tastes, that they are too accessible, that they even border on kitsch. If so, they are genuine, original handmade kitsch and they present themselves for what they are without any sense of the high-art overview that distances Warhol from his source material. Bill Beckley’s layercakes and fried eggs are delicious things that tell us they are good to eat, and the photographs are delicately sensual objects that want to be good to look at. For my part, I do not see it as kitsch at all, but as an affirmation of the possibility of joy in common things, of warmth in directly shared experience, however bleak the intimations of the human condition that lurk beneath the surface.

Eric Cameron is director of the graduate program at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.