London

Julie Becker, Marking Territory (detail), 2004, mixed media on paper, 11 × 17".

Julie Becker, Marking Territory (detail), 2004, mixed media on paper, 11 × 17".

Julie Becker

ICA - Institute of Contemporary Arts, London

Julie Becker, Marking Territory (detail), 2004, mixed media on paper, 11 × 17".

DAYDREAMS TRANSFORMING into nightmares, LSD, Danny from The Shining (1980), and feelings of scary and sublime horror are just a few of the mind-bending forces at play in Julie Becker’s art. “I can’t make sense of any of this,” a Hollywood psychic tells the artist in Conversations with Voxx, 1995, a video shown within the sprawling installation Researchers, Residents, A Place to Rest, 1993–96. London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts displayed this massive work alongside nearly forty of Becker’s best known pieces in the careful survey “I must create a Master Piece to pay the Rent.” The psychic’s assessment feels weirdly acute: The exhibition, which was curated by Richard Birkett and Stefan Kalmár, shows Becker mapping otherworldly zones where the ordinary rules of logic melt; her work adds up to a sequence of psychedelic hauntings in which anything can be unsettled, from The Wizard of Oz (1939) to what a “room” is. Eerie shadows seem to breed at the edges of even Becker’s gentlest creations, an effect that is even more intense today with our knowledge of the artist’s troubled life. Becker committed suicide in 2016 at forty-three. Everything gets slippery: Her art lures its audience into other dimensions, many of which take them far into—or way out of—her own head.

Becker accomplishes this trick by taking another spin on the carousel of childhood, zeroing in on the phase just before monsters vanish from under the bed and begin inhabiting the body. Lewis Carroll’s Alice could run wild in Becker’s world of gamboling nymphets, drugs, discombobulations in scale—her photograph Interior Corner #6, 1993, with its mouse’s-eye view of a bedroom floor, imbues a Lynchian Red Room’s enormous door with oneiric oddity. 1910 West Sunset Blvd, 2000, is a painted sculpture that remakes a section of Hollywood sidewalk. Bewildering in its verisimilitude, it comes garlanded with a Japanese silk slipper (Cinderella flees a dance in the royal pagoda), fake trash, jacks, a bottle cap, and a kid’s apocalyptic drawing of little houses devoured by flames labeled ANNUAL STREET ART COMPETITION. The replica induces confusion about space versus surface: We fall down the rabbit hole to a scene in Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893), where golden-hearted Sylvie meets a man who brags about making “a map of the country on the scale of a mile to the mile!”

View of “Julie Becker: I must create a Master Piece to pay the Rent,” 2018. Floor: 1910 West Sunset Blvd, 2000. Photo: Mark Blower.

Like a premonition of Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (1999), Becker’s early video Transformation and Seduction, 1993/2000, which she created as a student and remade several years later (haunting herself?), is another work that deals with doubling and dreaming. She edits together hazy scenes from Disney’s live-action frolic The Gnome-Mobile (1967) and supplies it with a new soundtrack: In voice-over, Becker’s own father reads passages lifted from Nabokov’s Despair (1936)—a wicked novel about a mad chocolatier who kills his doppelgänger—and lines from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, specifically the part where Zeus celebrates the “exquisite pleasure” of becoming a swan. Sinister forces are trying to communicate, but they never manifest; they just threaten. Scenes of cosmic disturbance recur (lightning, swooping birds, a shaggy monster lurking behind a hedge), and the feeling of weirdness grows as Becker mimics the unstable rhythm of a dream: sudden jump cuts, loopy repetitions, non sequitur debris materializing from nowhere and dissolving again. The woods are a maze.

Still from Julie Becker’s Transformation and Seduction, 1993/2000, video, color, sound, 4 minutes 36 seconds.

Becker transports her audience to another magical realm in her video installation Suburban Legend, 1999, as Dorothy crash-lands in Oz to the soundtrack of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (1973). Anybody who followed the Yellow Brick Road as a kid remembers how scary it was: flying monkeys! Mean trees! That Wicked Witch with her green flesh! Meanwhile, between bong hits and black lights, Pink Floyd’s opus was a generation’s primer on the unbearable heaviness of being. Tracking the Pynchonesque stoner superstition that the film and album operate in cahoots, syncing perfectly, Becker uncovers a matrix of freaky coincidences, such as the moment when “Us and Them” kicks in as the Winged Monkeys descend like demented Valkyries on the gang, or how “Time” and its vibe of comfortably numb melancholia fits with the shot of Dorothy lying comatose in a poppy field. Here, Becker is the invisible Wizard, pulling levers that turn Oz from a hallucinogen into a downer, thanks to The Floyd’s doomy grown-up knowledge. Spotting the cabalistic patterns might just be the first symptom of madness: “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” as the Cheshire Cat wisely tells Alice.

Still from Julie Becker’s Transformation and Seduction, 1993/2000, video, color, sound, 4 minutes 36 seconds.

THE HORROR-SHOW PROBLEM of being not-quite-gone (like, “undead”) reverberates within the mammoth Researchers, Residents, A Place to Rest. Something like a trippy reformulation of the Overlook Hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s epic The Shining, the piece feels like a wormhole into the possessed memories of its psychic little hero, Danny. Mom and Dad have vanished, and what remains is an ominous complex of vacant rooms littered with clues hinting at past trauma—Ouija board, dollhouse, a numinous tricycle. What’s in the folder marked BACKGROUND NOTES? A phantom version of Kay Thompson’s children’s book heroine Eloise has roamed the same space: A big notebook decorated with her name in twirly grade-school handwriting appears alongside Danny’s tchotchkes, suggesting some strange relationship between these two hotel kids. For extra disorientation, Becker lays a dollhouse replica of another empty hotel in the middle of this labyrinth, its rooms uninhabited, carpets with the same puke-orange kaleidoscope motif as the interiors of the Overlook, and all of it radiating the same depressive chill. Two decades before Ari Aster’s hellish family psychodrama Hereditary (2018), Becker was playing around with where a dollhouse begins or ends to suggest creepy things about home itself, not to mention, uh, “reality.” (Perhaps, like in Aster’s film, our “real” place is just another precarious simulation manipulated by sinister forces: a dollhouse within a dollhouse.)

A lot of Becker’s work is about going beyond what’s known into a wholly different wilderness.

Refrigerator boxes loom like evil henchmen in a Pixar fairytale. Exactly like in Kubrick’s movie, space gets deranged: Home sweet home becomes a shape-shifting phantasmagoria plagued by the threat of malevolent apparitions as past and present ooze together. In her drawing Marking Territory, 2002, Becker returns to an Overlook-like corridor and sketches a disembodied kid’s arm scribbling the word JULEIO! on the wall. It’s funny ha-ha and funny peculiar: Possessed, Danny writes REDRUM backward on the bedroom door; Kubrick gives his audience a mirror to see it true. JULEIO! doesn’t give much in reverse—it’s the hint of an anagram, or just the name deranged. It’s all uncanny with a capital U.

Julie Becker, Researchers, Residents, A Place To Rest, 1993–96, mixed media. Installation view, 2018. Photo: Mark Blower.

Oh, wait, should that be “you”? “The viewer, by way of being in the installation, becomes a character, too,” Becker wrote about Researchers, Residents, A Place to Rest. You begin as Scooby-Doo, sleuthing around this creepy mixture of domestic, psychiatric, and storage space, but then transform into a ghost roaming its lonesome corridors now that the original occupants (who never existed anyway) are gone. Becker forges Danny’s confession to his imaginary friend and lays it on the floor like abandoned homework: “I TOLD [MY MOM] ABOUT YOU. BUT YOU WERE HIDING REMEMBER?"

Julie Becker, I am am I?, 2010, mixed media on paper, 17 1⁄8 × 14".

An untitled collage from 2015, where eyeballs float on wonky TV antennae, hints at zonked-out disembodiment. The screen is a shiny void: All the better to see you with, my dear. Toward the end of her life, Becker was making pictures of empty mirrors, portals that glow with the apprehension of some hazardous psychic state. I don’t have a Jell-O-brained explanation for why Becker isn’t here anymore, but it’s amazing how the survey reveals (through her absence!) the unstoppable ghostliness of her work. And I don’t know if writing about things in her orbit—opioids, H.R. Pufnstuf, or Bernard Rose’s goth movie for kids, Paperhouse (1988), where a pubescent girl discovers her dark art is a dissociative drug, the route to an eldritch world far away from grown-up control—would figure anything out. A lot of Becker’s work is about going beyond what’s known into a wholly different wilderness. Maybe it’s goofy to relate an artist so singular to things going on now, but her presence remains, circulating like a poltergeist inside Alex Da Corte’s neon-lit spook-house installation Die Hexe, 2015, and in everything by Grimes.

“Let me go, gravity, let me go!” she writes in one of her notebooks; perhaps she always craved a tornado to pluck her out of the world. Becker’s work suggests evil stuff (psychotic disorientation, homelessness, multiple worlds in druggy flux), but it’s frequently playful, light, and so pretty it hurts. This is not as paradoxical as it appears. Check her notes on Suburban Legend: “Strangely, the calm music seems to complement the torrent of wind going on.”

––Charlie Fox is a writer who lives in London. He is the author of the essay collection This Young Monster. (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017)