Seth Becker’s virtuoso weirdness
Contributed by Patrick Neal June 15, 2023 10:17 am
Contributed by Patrick Neal / There is a particular kind of thrill in trying to understand what is going on in Seth Becker’s paintings that involves separating what’s strange from what’s familiar. The subjects of his small oil paintings are peculiar, and so are the lenses through which he approaches a person, place, or thing. His solo show “Field Music” currently on view at Pamela Salisbury Gallery in Hudson, NY, occupying two floors and comprising around 40 small-scale oil paintings, embodies the painter’s slow-burn perversity.
Becker works in the genres of landscape, still life, interiors, and portraiture, with storylines percolating just beneath the surface. His paintings are based on direct observation, photos, postcards, props, natural specimens, and reproductions, and the small frames intimate a studious, private, and autobiographical sensibility. Individual works in the exhibition interact with one another, and can be categorized by theme, style, and art history, especially when stacked in pairs. The paintings often depict people and animals in off-kilter activity with things that are darting about, gesticulating, swarming, being dragged, or moving off-stage. None of his scenes are straightforward. They read as amalgamations of visual experiences packaged in oddball vignettes. Becker’s paint handling is casual and assured but open-ended, muscular but unfussy, combining the gritty dynamism of the Ashcan School with the more meditative touch of Will Gabaldón.
Seth Becker, Teaching Birds to Fly, 2023, oil on panel, 11 x 9 inches
He works on top of older paintings, employs colored grounds, and assembles his source material in a quizzical, layered manner. This enables him to cover a lot of imaginative terrain in which past and present, fact and fiction, converge over a wide span of art history, while infusing a reverence for master painters with an emo bent. Among the influences in evidence are romantic Hudson River School seafaring and nocturnes, and the atmospheric fog, gloom, and sparks of Whistler’s tonal arrangements. Paintings like Climbing Rooftops in Queens and Hunter in the Fog emit a fin-de-siècle vibe that conjures the Gilded Age. Other colorful paintings like Teaching Birds to Fly and Woman in a Tree are animated with the idyllic drama of the Pre-Raphaelites, where characters in archaic garb engage in curious theatrics.
In some paintings, large expanses of roughened underpainting depict troweled sand or trails of snow. Dragging a Deer Through the Snow has an emulsion of pink, carpeted flakes, while In the Sand is raked and grooved with ocher. Both paintings suggest something ominous without spelling it out. Other works like Riding for the Feeling showcase naked people cavorting in unusual domestic settings. Nude Stumbling In a Field at Last Light is bathed in Hooker’s green and gold and could be a gothic inversion of Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World. Bathtub with Frog – with a tilted overhead view and pink and lime palette – reads like a nostalgic snapshot of childhood wonderment. Leaving the Party and Dream Apiary are loosely sketched, radiating a woozy aura of half-remembered events.
The exhibition includes several paintings of dogs and coyotes caught in challenging situations that pit nature against human interference. There are also several paintings of rabbits in the throes of agony and ecstasy that bring to mind the heroism of Watership Down and could serve as pocket allegories of the human condition. Works like Rabbit’s Feet and Rabbit Carried Off by a Hawk evoke the violence and symbolism of Chaim Soutine’s flayed animal carcasses. Like Soutine, Becker constructs roiling landscapes with winding paths that convey deep space while conforming to the truncated borders of the picture plane. Night Swimmers, in turquoise and phthalo blue, features an embryonic pool of swimmers floating in the moonlight. It has a dreamy, hovering perspective akin to Katherine Bradford’s in her paintings of glowing, celestial bathers. In all these works, Becker renders light to dramatic effect in the form of fire, sun, flashes, particles, or beams.
His paintings might be visual variants of New Journalism, the literary style in which facts and subjective perception are entwined to enhance storytelling, keying on memory, mood, and disjointed detail. When Becker paints a dog climbing a telephone pole over the Hudson River, it seems a bit odd but not entirely impossible. We suspend disbelief on account of the picture’s simple integrity. The show’s title “Field Music” has a similar sort of ambiguity. It may refer to the lyrical beauty inherent to a bucolic setting, or more ominously to the drum-and-bugle corps that marched on battlefields. A painting like Nude in Anguish, with its blue sky and rolling hills, has all the markings of a pleasant day until we notice the consternated woman approaching a menacing mound in the foreground. Like many of his works, it eases us into a placid setting before unleashing a demon.
The weirdness of Becker’s work is refreshing. His subjects mingle incongruously, true to the fractured way visual information is received. This gives his pictures an authenticity that rescues them from the clichés of genre painting that insists on more idealized composition. Without trying too hard to get our attention, he rouses us with unnerving details. One senses in his work the infinite possibilities springing from the turn of a brush, and the torrent of representational potential in abstract ground. The Western canon is full of tropes ripe for the picking. Contemporary painters should be wary of gestural marks indicative of dead painters and the irrelevance of older genres. But Becker’s work proves that, with a few deft strokes of the brush, such influences can help yield winningly original contemporary art.
“Seth Becker: Field Music,” Pamela Salisbury Gallery, 362 1/2 Warren Street, Hudson, NY. Through June 18, 2023.