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SUMMIT, NJ — Touchstone is the name of Rachel Beach’s luminous installation at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey, and it clings to the work as both a metaphor and a pun.
Comfortably filling the spacious, irregular proportions of the center’s main gallery, the installation is composed of three distinct elements: freestanding abstract sculptures; color photographs of the artist’s hands (palms out and partially covered in paint); and black-and-white videos appropriated from vintage films of competitive stone lifters (which is where the pun comes in). Throughout, the sense of touch, as conveyed by the photographs of hands (ranging from life-size to colossal) and by the faux-textured surfaces of the sculptures, is as compelling as the offbeat visual sensibility the artist brings to the work.
Beach is known for her geometric, totem-like sculptures done primarily in painted wood, which often consist of bulky shapes balanced on impossibly narrow points of contact — bravura performances of engineering, craft, and imagination. Her surfaces are tours de force of color, pattern, and design, and beg the question of whether her work is painted sculpture or painting on sculpture. The point is that it is both and neither; Beach is an expansive artist who pursues an eccentric harmony of disparate elements, and with this show she adds photography and video to the mix.
The remarkably assured photographs in the show — especially those that are enlarged to an unforgiving six-by-four feet — speak to the singular, boundary-erasing scope of Beach’s art. For someone who had never used photography or video before conceiving this installation, which she worked out on a scale model of the gallery, the inclusion of six enormous photographs and 11 smaller ones — not to mention the four black-framed, gif-based, seconds-long videos of early 20th-century strongmen hoisting boulders above their chests — must have made some crazy kind of sense.
In each of the photos, Beach has painted a hard-edged shape on one of her hands, an intervention meant to confuse the visual relationship between the fingers and the palms. The larger photographs, framed in simple white shadowboxes, are paired like diptychs even though they are individually titled. Four of them are named after punctuation marks — “Apostrophe,” “Parenthesis,” Cedilla,” “Em Dash” (all of the works in the exhibition are dated 2016) — and they kind of look the part: a rounded amber swatch covers the palm and thumb, which impersonates the apostrophe’s tail; a red U-shape travels from the forefinger to the wrist and back up the pinky; a white curve drops down from the pinky and whips off to the thumb; a black vertical shoots up the wrist, catching the edge of the palm and enveloping the pinky.
It would be intriguing to know whether the idea of the punctuation mark — and the implied precept of art as language — preceded the taking of the photograph, or whether it was the product of free-association afterward. The two remaining large photos are titled rather ambiguously — “Caron,” a downward-pointing chevron taking up most of the middle and ring fingers as well as the tips of the pinky and index finger, and “Up Tack,” in which a minty off-white covers the thumb and forefinger, seeming to shear them off from the rest of the hand.
Regardless of intent, the overriding impression relayed by the painted hands is one of faceting and fragmentation, a scrambling of expectations that Beach deftly exploits in her three-dimensional work. But the extreme close-up of her palm — the moist whorls and creases of her skin and the blue veins beneath — also imparts an almost absurd sensuality. To encounter a hand larger than many full-grown adults, especially one making the universal gesture of “stop,” should probably feel menacing, but the radiant light spreading across the image signals a frank and striking degree of openness (and perhaps inverts the gesture to one of inclusion or surrender).
The same discomfiting sensuality can be applied to the freestanding totems, each of which embodies a different take on the casual defiance of gravity. “Beta Blocker” is the most stolid of the four, a vertical shaft composed of two interlocking rectangular forms, one painted a bone white and the other covered in black-and-white streaks — vertical and horizontal patterns divided into chevrons and triangles. The black-and-white section is planted on the floor, hefting the bone-white element about 10 inches off the floor, as if it were engaged in a show of strength paralleling that of the stone lifters in the videos.
“Way Finder,” in two shades of yellow, and “Eclipse,” in alizarin crimson and burnt orange, behave as the yin to the other’s yang: each composed of two sections, one juts out where the other pulls in, and vice versa. The sculptural forms are severe, with sharp edges, angles, and curves cutting this way and that, while the painted surfaces take on a life of their own, contrasting the swirling textures of one component against the unidirectional strokes of the other. The yellow-on-yellow reflective light on “Way Finder,” for one, is nothing if not sublime, yet held in check by the forbidding rigor of the shapes it has set aglow, as if to remind us that there is only so much pleasure we can take.
The fourth sculptural piece, “Water Bearer,” consists of a downward-pointing isosceles triangle on top of a much larger, narrowly tapered right triangle; the first is enlivened by brushy shades of blue splashed across the surface, while the other is decked out in vertical gray stripes made from obsessively crosshatched strokes of graphite.
The direct allusion to water in the top triangle’s color and texture again raises the question of whether the title was the premise or an afterthought. Either way, it indicates that Beach is trading in a kind of abstraction that doesn’t solely burrow into the formal qualities of its materials, but seeks to catch hold of the fluttering shirttails of the outside world.
The tension between form and allusion can be felt most acutely in the disjunction between the smaller-scaled photographs and the even smaller videos. The photos (which include mini-versions of the six large hands) are conjoined with wood elements painted to match the colors adorning the artist’s fingers and palms. The painted pieces of wood, which function as wildly improbable-looking frames, and their color-based relationship with the adjoined photographs, suggest that these works are more expressly formalist than anything else in the show. The videos, by contrast, are indivisible from their content. (Tellingly, unlike the more evocative terms the artist has chosen to name the other works, the titles here are simply descriptive: “Violet Hand,” “Magenta Hand,” “Grey Blue Hand,” etc. for the photos, and “Atlas Lift,” “Island Lift,” “Square Lift,” and “Highland Lift” for the videos.)
We puzzle over the strangeness of the photographs, yet instantly recognize the imagery of the videos, thereby firing up very different parts of our brain. The same split occurs when we take in the disorienting construction of the sculptures before steeping our gaze in their luxuriantly painted surfaces, or when the stark flatness of the paint covering parts of the enormous hands feels at war with the seductiveness of the flesh.
By foregrounding the schism between form and content, Beach is demonstrating the agitated unity of her handmade domain, an oasis of light and color rimmed by a jagged borderland, where the world we live in can be glimpsed, teasingly, just beyond our reach.
Rachel Beach: Touchstone continues at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey (68 Elm Street, Summit, New Jersey) through March 17, 2017.
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