Jim Beckner’s art vibrates with the pulse of the city. His edgy and energetic paintings give one a sense of motion, and though his subject is gritty, the colors with which he achieves this feeling are far from muddy; in fact, one often finds throughout his work, pure, clean jewels of pigment that pop with life. Cityscapes are his chosen subject matter for this most recent one man show; however it is not a theme he adheres to exclusively. He has spent an equal amount of time painting landscape, figures, and still life, yet, urban scenes are perhaps some of his most recognizable canvases, undoubtedly because the lively pacing of his brushwork so easily lends itself to motion, to traffic and pedestrians, illuminated shop windows, and street lights. But don’t be fooled by what appears haphazard – it is anything but. Beckner plans out every canvas to completion in his mind before he lays in even one brushstroke, and has meticulously defined and refined these paintings over weeks and months to create an exhibit full of individual works of art that harmonize as one.
Interview with Jim Beckner, conducted April 1, 2010
RF: Is there a theme to the work in your latest show?
JB: Yeah, I try to think about what I want in a show, and this one I wanted to be more urban and contemporary, a lot of cityscapes, bar and restaurant themes. So in terms of subject matter there is a theme, but in how I paint, no. For example, some of the paintings I wanted to focus on the color, say make one all tones of orange and explore that, and in another I wanted it to be more realistic, not about pushing the color. Each painting has an individual thought behind it, but they are all about the city.
RF: It seems much of your work has always had that urban theme…
JB: I do a lot of other things, oceanscapes, still life, figure – at least fifty percent of my paintings are not urban scenes – but I think people notice that subject more. For this show, I decided that since I’ve developed a lot of urban scenes in the past, I wanted to focus on that and push it further. I didn’t want it to be so much about the subject as how I could develop it beyond what I already have done.
RF: How do you see yourself developing?
JB: It’s really an evolution of what I’ve been doing all along. I wouldn’t say I’m changing my approach. I feel like I’ve grown so that if you were to compare this show to what I’d done five years ago you would see the evolution. I’ve taken more care to draw my subjects where as in the past I was so excited about brushwork that I didn’t take so much time to develop the drawing. I’m now more interested in developing layers of paint, too. And, now I start a painting but take breaks from it, take my time and get more layers of paint onto the painting. I let it develop over time.You know it’s funny, I don’t consciously think about these things when I’m painting, but I read what other artists say and I think about what applies to me. It’s good to think about all this. When you start thinking about it you can make conscious decisions.
RF: A one man show is a great opportunity to stand back and see a large body of work. With that in mind, I wonder, what are your thoughts on this group of paintings?
JB: I feel like I’ve been trying to take everything I’ve learned and heighten it. That’s why I wanted to stick with the urban scenes because that is unique to me; I thought I should try to develop those further. It’s a continuation of what I’ve been doing, focusing on the drawing and shapes, but also atmosphere, I’ve been able to incorporate atmosphere. Each painting I approach individually and have a conscious thought before I start. I don’t feel like the whole group is the same. It’s like a musical album, each song is individual but together they have continuity.
RF: You mentioned atmosphere – do you mean a physical way of applying the paint or do you mean the feeling one gets from the painting, as if they were standing right there when you painted it?
JB: More of the paint, giving it a soft-focus quality. That kind of painting tends to lean more toward realism. Even though I might use a lot of abstraction, I think there is always a sense of realism or of having a three dimensional feeling, that you can walk into the painting.
RF: Since you began painting fulltime, what changes have you noticed in yourself?
JB: I’ve been painting fulltime for about a year and I think, in terms of process, I find that I will sit and work on a painting in a series of sessions instead of barreling through a painting in a few hours. I find that I get tired after about four hours and I get lazy, which sometimes works, but now I’m more conscious of what I’m painting, what I’m doing. Also, in the past, I noticed that I would finish a painting and deliver it to the gallery and not see it again. But now I sit with the paintings and reevaluate and make changes over that time before I deliver my paintings. It also helps me when something did work: I can know how to apply it to another painting. But in terms of how I approach the painting, it’s still the same process. How I start and my temperament when I start, that hasn’t changed. I just have more time and awareness.
RF: How do you approach a painting?
JB: Before I get started I try to have a very clear image in my head of what the painting is going to look like when it’s done. My brushwork appears spontaneous, which I like, but there is a lot of thought put into what it will look like. So that gives me a starting point. And, actually, the ones that turn out the best are the ones where I had a clear image in my head. Once I start to paint something, how I do that depends on what aspect of the image is important to me. For example, it’s really fun to do more monochromatic paintings, to make a painting that is about the color or about the brushwork. If that’s the case, I might not be afraid of using a lot more paint and not worry about the drawing as much. It just depends on what I want to make the most important aspect of a particular painting. But I always start with a clear vision.
RF: What do you mean by temperament? Do you mean your mindset?
JB: I think like anybody, you get tired of, well…there are a lot of somewhat tedious aspects to painting, the drawing and details, and I want to get that down accurately, but sometimes after working on a tedious painting, the next time I’ll just want to do something much more free. I think that’s why I tend to do paintings that fall on both ends of the spectrum, some that are very realistic and others that are more expressionistic. Funny, I was thinking, I took one of my daughters to a music class, and we were in a circle and all the kids had a drum. Some kids were really beating on the drum and others were barely tapping it, and the instructor said “everyone has an inner beat.” In painting, I am kind of aggressive; I think I have a more aggressive inner beat. I have to tell myself to slow down.
RF: Would you consider your work abstracted realism or realistic abstraction? In other words, which quality is more important to you: realism or abstraction?
JB: I would say I’m more about abstracted realism. I heavily rely on the subject matter that I’m painting. I don’t have an abstract image in my head when I start; it’s a realistic image that I am starting from. If I get into trouble in the painting, I always fall back on the subject matter. I don’t usually look at the painting to get me out of trouble – move a shape or change a color – I’m always relying on the subject matter, which is more toward realism. Now, at the end of a painting, when I’ve developed the realism, at the end I will make more instinctual decisions to change it artistically.
RF: Your brushwork has an immediacy to it, as well as an urgency. Is that conscious?
JB: I think it is a little of both – conscious and my inner drumbeat. Since I make more conscious decisions about my art than a room full of kids beating on a drum, I always come back to painting aggressively. It’s funny, a lot of times if I start a painting and the drawing is more important to me, getting the subject matter accurately portrayed, I might get halfway through and realize that even though the drawing is there, it doesn’t have the emotional content. But I’m not afraid to screw-up a painting in order to get that emotional contact with the viewer. So, even though it may look like a pretty painting, if it doesn’t provide anything unusual or unique, I take my pallet knife to it, scrape away so that I can build it back up. Sometimes a painting looks too perfect for me; I have to surrender the painting so that the emotional brushwork can come out. I break down the painting and start putting the expressionistic brushwork back into it.
RF: Is that a new thing?
JB: No. I think I’ve been doing that over the last five or six years; I just became more aware. I heard an interview with a musician, a guitar player, and in this interview he said that sometimes when he’s playing the guitar and it sounds too ‘in tune’ he changes things to mess-up his guitar. He said he needed some kind of struggle and only when he had that struggle could he find something beautiful. I do that; I have to mess-up my paintings to create that struggle or tension – that might be a better way to say it – in a painting. I was already doing that but when I heard that interview it struck me because he put it into words.
RF: What do you hope people will take away from this show?
JB: This is the hardest question for me. When I’m painting I always think about what’s important for me – drawing, composition, brushwork, all that – but half of painting is showing it to other people, so that is something that you have to consider. As far as what I want people to get out of my work, I’d like them to take away an emotional quality. Even though I put a lot of technical skill into each painting I am more interested in them walking away with some emotional inspiration. I mentioned the idea of a struggle, I suppose if they can take away the idea that here is a person working hard on something that he believes in, that they can take away some sense of an honest struggle, and some element of beauty – I hope they think my work has beauty – but that emotional quality, that’s what I hope they get from it.
Jim Beckner’s One Man Show opens at Abend Gallery on June 18 and runs through July 13. He will give a painting demonstration on June 19, from 11 am – 3 pm.For more information go to www.abendgallery.com.