GRAND RAPIDS, Michigan — I first met Rick Beerhorst in 1986, when he was a graduate student in the MFA program at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. One of his teachers was Peter Bodnar, whose small, quirky, symbolic abstractions with a spiritual undercurrent — they share something with Jain cosmology — have flown under the radar for many years. I know of two other artists who studied with him and hold him in high regard: Christopher Brown and Tom Lieber.
At some point during the time I was there — three or four days — I went to Rick’s studio, where he made lunch and we talked, mostly about his background. I learned that he went to Calvin College, an educational institution of the Christian Reformed Church, which counts among its alumni the screenwriter and director, Paul Schrader.
As a way of saying something about the school and his background, Rick talked about Schrader, who wrote the script for Taxi Driver, Obsession, and America Gigolo, which he also directed. I learned that Schrader had not seen a movie until he was 17 and that he started a film club while he was a student at Calvin College, which the school authorities did not look kindly upon While Rick was preparing the food, I wrote out a list of books that he might consider reading. I also bought two woodcuts from him, which, years later, were burned in a fire.
While I don’t remember Rick’s early work, other than the two simple woodcuts I owned and lost, he made a lasting impression on me. I somehow knew that he would persist in being an artist, but, knowing so little about him, I had no idea what kind of artist he would become. Nearly thirty years would pass before I would find out.
Rick and his wife, Brenda, who is also an artist, live with five of their six children in a house on a quiet street not too far from the downtown. The oldest daughter, who is twenty-one, has moved out. The rest include a teenage boy and four girls, the youngest of whom is nine. The first thing I saw as I approached their home was a vegetable garden on the narrow strip of dirt between the sidewalk and curb in front of the house. To the right of their front door was a wooden sign, “Studio Beerhorst,” which sums it up, as the whole family is involved in variety of art-making projects.
The Beerhorsts are urban homesteaders. They grow their own vegetables and have a garden in the back, between the house and Rick’s studio, originally a carriage house, whose only heat seems to come from a woodstove. Until recently, the family raised rabbits, but slaughtering proved too traumatic. Arts and crafts are at the center of their activities. Before meeting Rick again, I checked out their sites on the web. This is what Brenda posted on Etsy:
Brenda and her husband and 6 children are an artist family working in various media, painting, wood cut prints, textile arts, and soft sculptures. They are urban homesteading in downtown Grand Rapids Michigan with backyard chickens and a large organic garden. They support themselves entirely by the art they make and sell, parents and children working together.
The Beerhorst family moved to Grand Rapids in the summer of 2006, after living in Brooklyn, New York, from July 2005 to July 2006. Our paths did not cross during that time. In fact, when I went to Rick’s house and studio near the end of September, 2013, it was the first time that I had seen him since he was a promising grad student.
The studio is two stories with a narrow staircase leading to the attic, where there are paintings, drawings and woodcuts on shelves and leaning against the wall, as well as a large table and a cabinet. On one wall, Rick had put up a painting with gold leaf, which he taught himself how to do. In a shallow inset we see a woman playing a mandolin. Both the inset and the area around it, which is the shape of an arch, are done in gold leaf. These are flanked on either side by Beerhorst’s depiction of a brick wall, with a bird in each of the wall’s eight circular openings, four on each side. In the inset, one cup of the woman’s red, strapless bra has been pulled down, revealing her breast, which shoots thin streams of milk into the air. Her eyes are rolled back in her head, as if she is in ecstasy.
The methodical but attentive way Beerhorst painted each brick unexpectedly reminded me of Martin Wong’s meticulous renderings of brick walls and American sign language. In her New York Times obituary (August 18, 1999), Roberta Smith characterized Wong (1946–1999) as “A Painter of Poetic Realism.” Style, however, is not what links these two very different men — Wong (who was openly gay and Chinese) and Beerhorst (who is a member of the Dutch Reformed Church, and who, with his wife, has home schooled their six children). It is not even that both men decided to commit their lives to art. It is that they embraced their culture, made it their subject in a non-didactic and celebratory way. Wong painted Chinatown storefronts and did portraits of their storeowners. Beerhorst depicts adolescent girls who inhabit a world that has distanced itself from mainstream society, its obsession with mass media and pop culture. Their work is tough and touching.
In “Girl Reclining,” a young woman has dozed off on a couch. She has one foot on the floor and the other on the seat cushion, and there is a mirror in one hand. A pile of books topped by a pear sits beside the left leg of the couch, while a teapot and teacup are on the floor near the right leg. A cat sits on the couch by her foot, staring out. Through the window, which the seatback partially obscures, is a view of some, large brick buildings — 19th-century factories which are now desirable loft spaces.
In Beerhorst’s paintings, girls and young women are often shown reading, but viewers sometimes cannot see their eyes because he obscures them with the reader’s book or overlays them with a disembodied hand or a fluttering hummingbird. With the aid of a book, the girls have transported themselves somewhere else; they are absorbed in an interiorized space — a world that is separate from ours — that we are not privy to, as the hovering hummingbird suggests. If we are unable to see the girls’s eyes, we cannot know what any of them are thinking/seeing. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then covering them with a flying creature conveys a complexity of feelings. Did the girls close the viewer out? Are they acquiring knowledge about things we don’t want them to know?
The father of five girls, Beerhorst seems to be addressing the conundrum every parent has to face: What happens when children want to gain their own authority? What happens when they become sexual beings aware of their deep desires? His paintings seem to be Balthus without any of the prurience. The sexual heat is there — as his painting of the lactating musician and another of a girl whose tongue is pierced suggest — but it is generally more constrained and hidden.
There is something disturbing about Beerhorst’s paintings. And part of it is their refusal to be charming. His subjects strike me as remote, unavoidably so. Whoever we are, we are intruders.
Beerhorst has taken his cues from Byzantine icons, early Renaissance painters such as Giovanni di Paolo, and American limners, which seems in keeping with his faith. He prefers a plain, forthright style without anything fancy or elaborate. Both in style and subject matter, his work has little to do with art world issues.
More than twenty-five years ago I wondered what would become of Rick Beerhorst. It seems that — despite the odds — he has made a place in this world for himself and his family. The question I am left with is this: is the world — specifically the art world, some corner of it — open enough to make a place for him and his work?