Art: Jonathan Beer: American Epic

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The Miami Dade Museum of Art and Design opens American Epic, the first solo museum exhibition of New York based artist Jonathan Beer. The twenty-five year old painter will exhibit paintings and sculptures created both in his New York studio and while working abroad in Germany and India. These recent works challenge traditional painting formats and combine a variety of architectural forms, found imagery, and expressive paint application to create new, composite objects that reflect on the multifaceted nature of American Identity.

Beer’s work takes on the unraveling of America’s many identities by exploring his relationship to its historical and present condition. His work often uses his own cultural history as a starting point to expose and explore America’s innate sense of contradiction, its continued obsession with the ideal American Dream, the leftovers of Manifest Destiny, its stubborn DIY spirit, innocence (false or not,) its prophecy of exceptionalism, its visual culture and design, the accompanying rampant materialism and global warmongering.

Beer’s work reflects a longstanding interest in the frontier spirit, mapping, stories of immigrants settling and constructing new lives, and how the fusing of the geography with culture has embedded identity into the very land itself. Beer is inspired by the imagery produced through the perpetual reinvention of American identity. While inspiration comes from distant American history, aspects of his family’s past also influence Jonathan’s work. The experiences of contemporary American culture, being a first generation American, father’s life in Romania all tie into the work.

Much of his landscape imagery was informed by the art of the Hudson River School, and time spent in the Adirondack Mountains. He works extensively with contemporary and historical photographs, finding inspiration in iconic moments and the reductive power of the lens. The artist’s fascination with popular cultures use of design and packaging is utilized to frame the world in an abstracted manner. Beer’s art was stimulated by his study of philosophy and historical documents from important historical moments like the settlement of the West, the Space Race, and the War on Terror in the Middle East. Layered spaces reference external observation and photographic sources, playing with formal qualities of integration and non-integration within each piece.

Through crisp technique and counterintuitive juxtapositions, Jonathan Beer’s art straddles the line between illustration and full-blown abstraction, often side-by-side. His emphasis is on decay and motifs of memory, with each piece attempting to conjure the reality of the mind, something like a Polaroid snapshot of his mental state.

Do you ever look back at a piece and find you’ve overdone it, went one or two steps too far?

Oh yeah, all the time. Learning to not paint is one of the hardest things to do. I remember talking to one of the instructors here about that, and someone told him that a mature artist knows when to not paint. After he said that I started to think about that when I compulsively reach to make a mark on something I hadn’t touched in a while. It’s like, “Wait, is this right?” Now if I’m not sure I let it sit, and a lot of time when I get the urge to do something it’s because I just want to work, so I’ll just start something new at that point. I get that energy out and it protects the other stuff from a possibly destructive decision.

What are some of your visual obsessions?

The work has always been about memory as long as I’ve been making paintings. I started off more in an area surrounding the mind, concerned about how the mind works, if you could see it work and taking that possible image and transpose it into another kind of image, a landscape.

How does deterioration and fragmentation figure into that?

It started with an idea of what a memory would look like if you could slice it up. The images, the sound, and smells that make up a memory in your head, what would that look like if it was a real thing? Would it be the actual place? Similar, falling apart, coming together? Would it come apart more as we forgot more of it? It was kind of visualizing our visualization of memory. I was doing landscapes where it was unclear if it was coming together or falling apart, and I was always interested in that line. You could say it was a cinematic frozen moment. These things were suggesting motion but you weren’t sure in which direction it was going, forward or backwards.

Now I see a lot of magazines and photographs in the studio. Do you use that as a jumping-off point or does it come from someplace more internal?

 I think it’s a real mix of both. There’s source material, which could be anything from contemporary magazines or photography, a lot of landscape and architectural photography, like Burtinsky and Andrew Moore. Film stills also, I’ve looked so much at  the scene in “Dr. Strangelove,” where they are in the war room and you see that whole map stretched out behind them. It’s really abstract.

New York is a very architecturally rich city. Do you draw from that well at all?

 I’ve done a lot of drawing on location around New York in the past four or five years. The palette and the environment are from New York, the urban fabric. A lot of my work is heavily scraped out and painted on with something that looks totally flat and new and incongruous, as if it were just pasted over. New York has compounded my interest in that kind of surface.

Is this your version of doing a mash-up?

 I would say its part of it. The collage part comes mainly with how we experience memory overlapping with day-to-day life. We’re having this interview right now, and observing everything that’s happening in here, but it’s always overlaid by this memory that flashes really fast, instantaneously. So we’re always superimposing images on top of observations. Part of it also comes from having a background in graphic design.

Tell us a little about that.

I went to school for illustration but I’ve been doing design work for 6 or 7 years now. I’ve always felt a very intuitive sense of design, mostly print and branding logo work, so stuff that deals with building icons and semiotic signs and signifiers. In doing layouts you move things around in an intuitive way and develop a trust for instincts. Composing a painting, for me, is the same, despite the fact that a lot of these feature representational elements and imagery. I tend to not treat them any differently than abstract elements. I’m a very formal painter in the sense that I am concerned with the picture as the thing almost before pre-imagery. The picture will be what it is, what I find, what I need it to be, but I need the picture to hold together first.

TO?GO: American Epic will be on view January 16 – March 21, 2014. Hours: Wednesday – Sunday noon – 5 p.m. Free. At the Miami Dade College Musuem of Art & Design, Freedom Tower, 600 Biscayne Blvd; Miami. For info: mdcmoad.org or 305.237.7700.

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