Fauna & Figures
Fauna and Figures: The World According to David Beck
by John Parks
The mixed media constructions of artist David Beck contain miniaturized worlds filled with constant surprises. They also make profound and sometimes moving statements about the world in which we live.
Initially the senses are entertained by the extravagant detail of the carving, the intricate movements of his mechanical figures and the curious sounds they sometimes produce. The works invite wonder in the same way a marvelous and complicated toy captivates a child. And then they are often simply very funny so that even the most solemn observer finds himself disarmed by the absurdity of the narrative situations they represent and the hilarity of the mechanical antics of his tiny figures. And if the works are entertaining they also often involve themselves in the furnishings and trappings of entertainment, the movie screens, the orchestra pits, proscenium arches and stage curtains not to mention the opera singers, dancers and orchestras themselves. The viewer is enticed by the promise of fun and diversion only to find himself as often as not in a world that can be both alarming and tragic. In one piece a man sits and plays a violin cheerfully enough but above him hangs a light on a long brass pole, a fixture so long and ponderous that it has become both threatening and ridiculous. In many of the large pieces the sheer plethora of absurdities and dislocations of scale and narrative become subversive rather than humorous.
It is possible to identify some, but probably not all, of the artistic and technological traditions on which David Beck builds. His animated constructions are related not only to sophisticated eighteenth century automata, but to simple nineteenth century crank toys, and even whirligigs. The vigor of much of his carving and the use of lowly, found materials recall folk, nave and outsider art. But his use of exotic materials, ivories, elaborate inlays and fine lacquers show an acquaintance with some of the more refined techniques of European cabinetry while the handling of his subject matter is not without the influence of everything from comic book art to Balthus.
It goes without saying that David Beck is a master craftsman and an ingenious mechanic. He has developed a fascinating repertoire of moving parts, gorgeous surfaces and strange materials and he takes great care about when he shows off his methods and when he covers his tracks. But it is the coherence of his vision, the creation of a world at once cheerful and unnerving, hilarious and tragic, wildly absurd and utterly mundane that marks him as a true and wonderful artist.