PRINT October 2016


Julie Becker

Julie Becker, Interior Corner #3, 1993, C-print, 35 × 27". From the series “Interior Corners,” 1993. © Julie Becker.

“SHE WAS THE ONE TO WATCH,” Bruce Hainley recalls thinking when he surveyed the local art scene in the summer of 1997. He’d just moved to Los Angeles and seen an installation of Julie Becker’s photographs at Regen Projects. Becker had recently been profiled, along with Liz Larner, Catherine Opie, et al., in Ralph Rugoff’s Harper’s Bazaar feature “L.A.’s Female Art Explosion.” The year before, her monumental CalArts MFA thesis project, Researchers, Residents, A Place to Rest, 1993–96, had been selected by Paul Schimmel, then a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, for the 1996 São Paulo Bienal.

Created or, perhaps better, compiled over several years while Becker was living in a run-down SRO in then-seedy Echo Park, Researchers, Residents . . . spanned several discrete areas. It included a scale model of a rooming house, discarded refrigerator boxes (“the last refuge of the homeless,” Becker remarked in a 1997 interview, but also “temporary places for children to play in”), a messy research HQ, voluminous written files on the imaginary inhabitants, and the diaries of two children familiar to those who grew up in the 1970s and ’80s: Eloise, heroine of Kay Thompson’s children’s books, who lived on the “tippy-top floor” of New York’s Plaza Hotel; and the unfortunate Danny Torrance of The Shining. “Dear Tony,” Danny’s diary begins, “today dad went to look for work in some hotel in the hills. What will happen if he gets the job? He never asks me what i think about where i will move to.” Commenting on this startling installation in his Bienal catalogue essay, Schimmel wrote, “The rooms Becker creates for her fictional friends are specific renderings of altered states of mind, tinged with the artist’s own psychological uneasiness.”

Anecdotally if not verifiably, Becker was the youngest student ever to attend CalArts, enrolling in 1989, at age sixteen, in lieu of finishing her senior year at Santa Monica High School. Her former classmate Eve Wood recalls Becker scattering gerbera daisies as she strode through the main gallery in a long hippie dress. Dean Thomas Lawson was immediately impressed by this young student: “She was so brilliant, but so young, and always somewhat fragile.” He was struck by the “richness of her imaginative life compared to the poverty of her daily life.” Her sense of precariousness was no art-school affectation. The daughter of artists, she was born and raised in Los Angeles and grew up in a state of perpetual flux, moving from one apartment complex to the next as her parents struggled to make ends meet with an assortment of odd jobs. It’s not surprising that the material phenomenon of habitat and the immaterial phenomenon of childhood fantasy informed her work from the start. She was still in her teens when she began taking the photographs that compose her series “Interior Corners,” 1993. Closely cropped and as starkly flash-lit as crime-scene documentation, these images simultaneously evoke parentally imposed time-outs and low-rent LA anomie.

Over the course of her career, Becker elaborated her fascinations in a dense, increasingly complex, and infinitely rewarding body of work. Whole, an enormous unfinished project she’d intended to debut at New York’s Greene Naftali gallery in 2002, would become her magnum opus of sorts. She began building Whole in the basement of a ramshackle bank-owned bungalow she’d moved into rent-free in exchange for removing the belongings of its last inhabitant, who’d died of AIDS. The project was built to fail. Whole would come to include a scale model of the soon-to-be-dissolved California Federal Bank building on Sunset Boulevard, a tiki bar, a videotape in which a scale model of the bank building is hoisted down into an elevator shaft, a glitter-drenched drawing of the pyramid on the dollar bill, and a sculpture that resembles an excised chunk of sidewalk. As she explained to me that year, Whole would be “an endless exposing of parts . . . not ever reaching a whole.”

Becker was true to her word. She continued to exhibit fragments of the work in museums and galleries until her death, this past April, at the age of forty-three. In these exhibitions and works-within-works, she brilliantly plumbed pop mythologies, from conspiracy theory to stoner lore. Drawing from the latter, her installation Suburban Legend, 1999, featured a video syncing up Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon as a sound track to The Wizard of Oz. Throughout her career, Becker charted the dark side of the moon, demonstrating, as Mark von Schlegell wrote in 2001, that “reality, if shared only by consensual hallucination, is ripe with mystery, evil, good, love, aliens—and sparkles.”

In later years, Becker focused on producing witchy effervescent drawings and assemblages. The first panel of her triptych watering, 2015, features a plastic bag of miniature dollar bills and a pencil scrawl: I MUST CREATE/A MASTER PIECE/TO PAY THE RENT. A small fuzzy heart at the bottom of the drawing is connected by an earbud to a hovering ear.

Prescient, inspired, hinting at torment and yet graced by light, Becker’s output remains the work to watch. She was a genius and will be sorely missed.

Chris Kraus is a writer and critic based in Los Angeles.