Carl Beam

The profusion of images surrounding Carl Beam’s The Columbus Boat, 1992, collapsed and consumed historical stereotypes, creating an ahistorical rhetoric of image production through intensely personal and condensed references. A Canadian artist of Ojibway descent, Beam’s ongoing “Columbus Project,” 1989-92, focuses on native and nonnative historical stereotypes. Superficially, the media images and objects Beam incorporates into his paintings seem indebted to Robert Rauschenberg’s flatbed constructions from the ’50s, while his autobiographical notations and curious numerological and alphabetical references recall Cy Twombly’s works. But Beam’s post-colonial composites particularize the contents of each image to balance symbol and expression.

Cyclical Temporal Adjustment, 1992, a cropped and expanded portrait of Christopher Columbus (of whom no known likeness actually exists), depicts him, in typically sympathetic Occidental guise, as European venture capitalist supreme. The picture’s title, stenciled in above, is intended to be seen as a visual design no different from a native pictograph. A Mantegna Crucifixion scene, reproduced by projection onto photo emulsion, occupies the lower half of the painting, simultaneously a representation of the religious and political values Columbus exported with him to America and of the native initiation rite known as the piercing ceremony. When taken out of its art-historical context, Mantegna’s painting becomes one visual image among many, losing its iconographic significance. Partially covered with drips, swaths, and runs of paint, and with hand-drawn vertical and horizontal lines, all the images and cultural artifacts Beam uses, both textual and visual, are given equal weight in his works. Dramatic historical events (Hiroshima, Vietnam); personnages (Albert Einstein, Sitting Bull, Abe Lincoln, Martin Luther King); documents (Eadweard Muybridge’s quasi-scientific photo studies of locomotion); religious paintings, anomalous family portraits, photos of Galapagos turtles, parking meters, stop lights, hydrometers, and confettilike pieces of a cut-up $50 bill all allude to the codes and methodologies of representation, mechanical or painterly, from which we derive a sense of historical permanence and meaning.

Like a latter-day Paracelsus who persists in rendering all manner of imagery equal, Beam suggests history is a synthetic composite, a paradigm of the values we brought with us to the New World, emphasizing that established formal histories rely on dualistic Cartesian mechanisms in order to quantify, compartmentalize, endlessly textualize, and document all manner of material. Beam’s synchronous visual legends see history from the other side, open like any other story to a multiplicity of interpretations.

John K. Grande