Anne Beck, State, Brooklyn Arts Press, 2008

Readers will probably figure out that Anne Beck’s artist book State is inspired by the apocalyptic before they read the editorial note that comes at the end of the small volume. The first hints come through in the opening pages: a stark “STATE” in heavy hand lettering that does a horizontal flip on the next page, a reversal that opens up the instability and vagaries implicit in the rest of the book, a collection of painted collages and drawings that together tell the story of a society impaired by its dependence on technology and yet still invested in a clean state of nature. Beck mixes the organic and inorganic into a surreal whole.

Published by Brooklyn Arts Press, Beck’s State is actually a copy of the artist’s own handmade manuscript, itself a composite of media including acrylic, gouache, watercolor and collaged intaglio prints, all bound in found printed suede. The prints found in the book are high quality, though Beck’s tactile approach to mixing textures and media doesn’t come through as they should, which is definitely a shame. The materiality of the artist’s work is one of the chief joys of reading through State. What does come through clearly is Beck’s sense of symbolism and her ability to create a dialogue out of disparate images and impressions.

State‘s tumble starts off with a group of images that verge on the organic but never wholly give in, pictures that could’ve been taken through microscopes of shuffling groups of cells and atomic structures. Beck makes me aware of the visual fetish the microscopic view forms: we are only able to glimpse the organic through an inorganic instrument. So here we have little cells made of clipped typewriter text and squirming bodies floating through a gelatinous stream of watercolor. Spindly pencil-line branches twine into patterned surfaces like ice crystallizing. Beck’s taste in the figurative runs toward the pre-deconstructed; we are confronted with dashed-line arms that extend off the page, shallow bodies seen in profile and a fragment of legs and torso.

These visual tics build to a protracted sense of the surreal. Beck knows how to pace our reading, slowing viewers down with spreads that stretch over two pages. In what felt like a peak of the book’s story arc, the silhouettes of bombs (or are they whales? or fish?) seems to fall into the abyss of a mottled black background. Some of the shapes even recall sets of lungs, yet they are all sinisterly ambivalent, vicious organic or inorganic machines.

My interpretation of Anne Beck’s State isn’t so political as that imagery implies, though. To me, reading the book is like watching a scientist dream. Some dreams are quiet and beautiful, rainbow clouds over green grass. Not exactly evil, but strange. Some dreams are worse, endless mechanical systems that might be living or dead, loops of thought and respiration and reproduction that have no end or goal but continuation.

Anne Beck’s artist book State is available through Brooklyn Arts Press.

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Kyle Chayka

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly,...