“Let’s put them in the right order,” says artist Robert Beckmann.
Beckmannn and assistant Lance Smith each pick up a large canvas, one is moved to the end of the line, a second replaces another hanging on the wall. Turpentine and Liquin drift upon the air displaced by their movements as they choreograph the line of four paintings within the central space of Beckmann’s suburban studio. Tomorrow the four paintings will be picked up and delivered for display for Beckmannn’s exhibit opening at Downtown Contemporary gallery.
From the outside it looks like any other three-bedroom house in a quiet neighborhood but inside oil painting and art storage have taken over. Sprinkled throughout the house are landscape engravings by Joseph Mallord William Turner and photogravures by Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen. Beckmann’s Vegas Vanita “Renewal” dominates a back bedroom adjacent to a poster in Russian advertising a Beckmann exhibit in Russia back in 1996. In the living area two tables are strewn with jars of solvent, brushes poking out the top, tubes of paint and nearby a palette with fresh dollops of Titanium white and various blues.
The correct order achieved the panels are scanned from left to right. Softly scudding white blurs into blue sky in the first panel passing beneath blurred metal arches in the second and by the third gradually clears revealing in the fourth the exit of a carwash. The clouds forming the ethereal sky turn out to be mostly thick soap glazing a windshield. The soapy clouds and clear blue invoke the impressionist skies of Claude Monet while the fact that it turns out to be a ride through a carwash creates an enjoyable mixture of humorous banality with the sublime.
“These are trial by water, sort of like a baptism,” Beckmann explains. His recent return to the desert prompted a renewed interest in water both its scarcity and its potential for renewal.
“We’re all so helter-skelter,” he says “‘don’t have time to be with [our] kids…don’t have time to listen to the birds…don’t have time to be quiet.’ I was thinking about the car wash, for a lot of people that is their ‘vacation time’…their little reprieve where they get to stop for a minute. It’s a break in their week, a time to refresh or renew. It’s like a brain wash.”
Passing into the void space of a car wash, we experience a forced pause, a moment of meditation linked with the rhythmic thudding of the large spongy tentacles swarming the glass. The industrial air blower stops, wheels part from the guided tracks, control is restored and we are released; the clamor of life rushing back in upon us.
The easy availability of car washes, swimming pools, sprinklers at playgrounds, belies the increasingly scarce condition of water in the desert southwest.
“’Is a car wash a waste of water?’ is one question that might be raised,” Beckmann ponders “And I’m not being didactic with these things. Water is a real issue here and it’s finally not enough.” Beckmann’s water interests tie in with a long time interest and love for the Las Vegas Wash.
“The wash has been a long term interest of mine. At one point I thought I was going to be a doing a mural of the wash from Lake Las Vegas to Lake Mead… a 100-by-10-foot mural for the airport with cells that would blow up and tell people about water and where they live, things like here’s a Wilson Warbler and here’s a Creosote bush… I’m still hoping somewhere I can do that. I’ve been talking to people.”
In keeping with his water conservation and wildlife preservation goals Beckmann recently accepted a position as a trustee of the Desert Wetlands Conservancy
“It’s a [group] concerned about water and the valley and trying to slow it down. All the governmental agencies seem to worry about is growth. We’re in a situation where the whole South West is becoming more of a desert.”
A weighty topic to contemplate next time we find ourselves passing through a car wash.
Downtown Contemporary, artSquare 1025 First St. #145, www.downtown-contemporary.com