Above L to R: The Promise of Warmth; Thursday Afternoon Stilllife
Written By: Marimar McNaughton | Photographed By: Arthur Green
A man walked into Dan Beck’s Castle Street gallery and said: “I really like your work. I looked at your website, read your bio. You won the Gold Medal in 2011. What have you done since then?”
The mysterious stranger come to town is a literary metaphor representing the avatar of change. The man’s words and his interest in the artist’s work motivated Beck to enter three national shows in 2016: Oil Painters of America National Exhibition, American Impressionist Society National Exhibition and Oil Painters of America Eastern Regional Exhibition. Juried by his peers, all three pieces were accepted for exhibitions in Dallas, Seattle and Cincinnati. All three paintings came home with awards.
“The shows are . . . hard to get in, very hard,” Beck says. “There’re really good artists that don’t make it in. There’re really good artists that win awards one year and don’t make it in the next.”
The OPA’s member bios reveal the perennial contenders who have won awards and medals. Dan Beck’s name is right up there with them.
“It’s true in this world for everybody,” he says, “but especially for artists. If they can make you go away, they will. So you gotta keep pushing, you gotta keep working, you gotta make things happen. That’s why it’s significant. It’s significant because you’re still here.”
Even though his work traveled the United States, Beck loves Wilmington for its historic architecture, the river, the idiosyncratic atmosphere.
“I feel the history, the people, the brick roads. You can just feel it. You feel like you’re alive.”
The external environment affects him in a multitude of positive ways, permeates his psyche. His daily walks to the river refresh his desire to paint.
“I’m experiencing these things and feeling them and feel part of them. When I get out here and walking around, I . . . see the beauty,” he says. “I’m really happy in the studio, talking with other artists and painting.”
At a time when many local artists are turning to the en plein air medium—capturing subjects in that magical hour of light before the shadows drift—Beck is primarily a studio painter.
Many people assume the artist’s life to be very solitary and when he goes into his studio Beck is indeed alone most of the time. On a recent morning he began his workday with coffee and an intense scrutiny of the painting he completed the day before.
“I’m staring at a figure painting that I did yesterday,” Beck says. “I’m looking at the rhythms that I can find in the movement of my brushwork, the movement of color.”
This particular painting began with his photograph of a live model taken several years ago.
“It’s a beautiful pose. I started it a couple of months ago and maybe just ran out of time that day. When I saw it yesterday I thought, ‘This is the right time to try to finish it.’”
“When . . . serendipity, the forces of the universe, are working . . . that helps a lot. At this point in my career, I probably need that more than anything.”
“Or, what I was running into looked familiar to me and wasn’t something that I wanted to address at the time. I’ve learned a lot in the past couple of years about how to work color in different ways I never knew before. I don’t need a photograph to tell me what to do. So I don’t need to find the photograph . . . if I could find it,” he laughs.
Beck’s Castle Street location includes a modest storefront gallery and a very large backroom studio.
“If I don’t have people come in here, like I do once a week—I hire a model and have a few people come over and paint with me—if that doesn’t happen and I don’t have to straighten up, within a month I can’t even walk around here.”
At any given time Beck may juggle 15 or more works in process. Once finished, framed and hung with proper lighting, original paintings viewed in person resonate with the vitality of the artist and how he puts his paint on canvas, or linen or cotton. Infused with energy, great paintings possess the power to transport the viewer away from the restraint of ordinary life to another place in time, a memory, a dream state, even cosmic awareness.
“I remember I was stunned by Cezanne’s work in person,” Beck says.
His own style is deliberately influenced by two diverse schools of art: Abstract Expressionism and Russian Impression. What some might consider a dichotomy of styles, Beck blends the two thoughts across philosophical planes. In the process, he creates a dialogue between the two languages, he says.
One of his teachers was a student of Hans Hoffman, a post World War II Abstract Expressionist, a leader in a movement about being there, in the moment, Beck says.
Another teacher was a student of Russian Impressionism.
“I continued my studies of Russian Impression . . . because I found, for me, being there in the moment—I paint abstractly but that’s not what I’m known for—I love that experience. Just a simple painting of an orange, or a girl sitting on a sofa, that’s almost two languages at one time you’re speaking about. Obviously you can be showing your hand—that’s why I like traditional painting—because you can be showing your hand, that you appreciate beauty, or whatever you’re trying to do, you can’t hide that because that’s going to be in your work.”
With this kind of expression in mind Beck is also talking about the power of the paint for its own sake.
“That being said, it’s really never just for it’s own sake. It’s like the experience of getting out and feeling the wind blow, feeling the limbs move, seeing the leaves and the twigs against the big flat sky. It’s those rhythms that I feel are human, that we relate to, and there’s a language going on even if we are not aware of it when we walk in nature, that we whisper to . . . It’s so organic.”
For Beck, the Abstract Expressionists were painting that organic nature without subject matter.
“I think that’s why I like them. I think the [French] Impressionists were trying to get some of that in their work. Some people would say the Impressionists were just trying to paint light. The Impressionists were all over the board with what they were doing. But really . . . they were exaggerating . . . the six principals of painting. I think they were experiencing what they want to talk about themselves and that is what they felt about their lives. It’s something that they chased.”
The Russian Impressionists took the French movement and built upon it, he says. It’s these ideas that beckon him to walk about Wilmington, go down to the river, disappear into the studio, experiment with techniques, create rhythms with paint.
“I’m not one of those guys who found my favorite thing and stick with it
I love to experiment.”
He believes he sticks out of the Wilmington streetscape like a sore thumb, but no. With a shaggy haircut and wire-rimmed glasses to frame his boyish face, a chorded leather talisman tied around his neck, a T-shirt, hooded sweat shirt and baggy pants, he acts more like everyman.
“This is what I’ve chosen, how I’ve chosen, and the way I want to talk.”
Titles of work Top to Bottom: By the George; Pirate; Point of Departure