This is not a critique of Jason Armstrong Beck’s The Forest for the Trees, a one-night-only solo show presented by Galerie 124 in the basement of 107 Whitaker Street.
There’s no reason for me to critique The Forest for the Trees because it has nothing to do with art galleries or art history or theory or anything that could be remotely or tangentially related to the bullshit of the art world. (And there is so much bullshit.) There’s no reason for me to write a critique because to do so would completely miss the point. And I try very hard not to be in the business of missing the point.
None of you know Jason Armstrong Beck. Maybe you think you do, or maybe you know his name (you might recognize him for his work under the pseudonym Bison Jack) – maybe you even went to one of his installations on Broughton Street last year and met him. He’s the guy with the English accent, pork pie hat and trenchcoat; the ever-present uniform which seems chosen specifically to aid his mission of cultivating a fog of mystery around himself.
It’s possible that he may have simply materialized in some darkened corner of a downtown square one night. Or maybe he slipped away from the background of a film noir at the Lucas, shimmying out the side door with his hat tipped low over his eyes. Getting to know him is an endless ceremony of initiation – each time you prove you can be trusted, he brushes away one veil only to reveal another.
You’ll learn nothing about Beck from The Forest for the Trees, despite his oft-repeated remark that it’s the most personal thing he’s ever made. The show card tells a story about Beck as a young boy, spiriting himself away into the night to find “answers to questions he was too young to understand”. The vinyl artist statement on the wall reveals a bit more:
“Photographed over the course of two years, The Forest for the Trees is both a meditation on light and an exploration of the atmosphere that envelops the south after dark. Throughout my career, I have always tried to let my work be an extension of my physical as well as emotional vocabulary… For some, it takes a long time to learn to see in the dark and perhaps these nocturnal images are as much a contemplation of my own life as they are about Savannah.”
But if you were to enter that subterranean space at 107 Whitaker Street, descend those candlelit stairs into the basement alive with the rush of water in pipes and flickering shadows and not read any of this information – it absolutely would not matter. What Beck offers with The Forest for the Trees is a purely emotional experience. With each viewing, I felt a surge of relief.
These images – whatever they are and whatever you find in them – are free from expectation.
Easily mistaken for paintings, the abstracted landscapes in Beck’s delicately hung photographs glowed with an ominous beauty. They’re not so much images of Savannah as they are depictions of the emotions one feels when walking its darkened streets, the thoughts that pass inside a tired mind, fleeting beats of fear and sensuality.
There were no piece titles. There were no clean white walls. There were no advertisements, no business cards, no neat little placards offering information, explanations. A woman standing near me stopped Beck to ask what the show was about: “That’s really up to you, isn’t it?” he said before briskly walking away.
While this should have been liberating, some viewers couldn’t seem to unshackle themselves from the need to interpret or the feeling that it was their duty to stand the requisite four feet away, complimentary wine in hand, until they’d “figured it out.”
But whose fault is that?
Human eyes naturally seek patterns; we’re drawn to abstracted forms out of a desire to create order in them. Yet even when given permission, viewers struggled with the idea that unearthing some hidden subtext wasn’t a labor Beck had interest in tasking them with. Beck, whose cultivation of a mystique about himself is in direct opposition to his desire to separate his persona from this work, forgot to remind them that they were participants in this performance-disguised-as-a-gallery-opening called The Forest for the Trees directed by Jason Armstrong Beck.
Ever concerned with secrecy (no photos were allowed during the preview night which preceded the Friday opening) and dazzled by the idea of temporality, Beck loves to create fleeting moments. This fascination is mirrored in the works, all flickers of light captured by Beck’s lens and caressed by the hands of his assistants in service of the creation of another brief flicker: the one-night-only show. (If you missed it then congratulations – don’t believe for a second that your crushing FOMO wasn’t part of the plan.)
In Beck’s mind this is part of his larger plan to elevate the Savannah art scene. Instead of gallery patrons placing expectations on artists, Beck believes the onus should be on the audience to step up, show up and acquiesce to the artist’s demands. If you expect to go to a show and have the work explained to you then why are you even there?
If you found The Forest for the Trees challenging or confusing or beautiful or unsettling – if you felt anything at all – then you played your part, you passed the test.
Participation in art doesn’t require interpretation, it simply requires your undivided attention. This feels like the beginning of something.