The Real America
Justin Colt Beckman and Grant Barnhart and the Art of Kansas, Ohio, Florida, Kentucky, Los Angeles, Shoreline, and the Kittitas Valley
Last Saturday, I sat in a country bar listening to a man tell his life story. A Hank Williams song played, and the man sipped on a Busch and said he'd lived in Lake Tahoe; Louisville, Kentucky; West Palm Beach; Los Angeles; and Ellensburg, Washington. The place he finally settled is a few miles outside Ellensburg, in the Kittitas Valley, in Thorp, a town of a few hundred people, where this bar is based. The floor is coated lightly in peanut shells and sawdust, Bob Ross–style paintings of mountains and rivers hang on the wall, candles burn inside glass mason jars, and there's a deer head above the bar and a (fake) fire burning beneath it.
Yet outside this room is Seattle, not Thorp, specifically the eastern edge of Pioneer Square, which is studded with art galleries. Justin Colt Beckman, the man who lived in all of those places and finally settled in Thorp, built this bar himself, transplanting a little of his chosen hometown to the city. Beckman is one of the artists who run the gallery PUNCH, and he has transformed the urban white cube into a functioning honky tonk for the duration of his exhibition there this month.
When people come in, they often think the art show is what's on the walls. They don't know that they're in it, part of it, already. Some discover that if they ask Beckman for a Busch, he'll go behind the bar and give them one. Beckman is not only the barman, he's also the "performer" on the bar's stage: Curtains frame a life-sized video of him wearing the hat, shirt, jeans, and boots of a country singer, strumming a guitar and lip-synching to the country songs playing on the speakers. Cowboy is a role he has down, all the way to the good-ol'-boy crooked smile, and that more caricaturish version of Beckman contrasts with the Beckman sitting there chatting with customers. (His presence is not officially part of the installation—he just happened to be minding the gallery when I was there—but ideally it would be.)
People tell Beckman, understandably, that his art reminds them of the 1960s trompe l'oeil sculptor Ed Kienholz. His acknowledged influences also include Wynne Greenwood's video "band" Tracy + the Plastics, Phil Collins's karaoke installation, and Pipilotti Rist's vampy 1990 music video You Called Me Jacky. The tone of Beckman's work is warm, open, and friendly, more Greenwood than Rist. It relaxes things, keeps them from getting too meta.
After all, people may not be getting Busch from a real barman, but it's real Busch; they may not be sitting on benches in a real bar, but they're sitting on real benches and talking to strangers with drinks in their hands. The day I'm there, I'm joined by a homeless woman named Cynthia, an older man named Gary, and a middle-aged man who doesn't give his name but shares that Ellensburg once had the nation's highest number of bars per capita and now holds that title for coffee stands. "Sedatives to stimulants," he says. Beckman does not labor to bring the conversation back to the fact that we're in an art installation.
Beckman is not the only youngish (he's 36) artist to move to Thorp and show at PUNCH, but his work most consistently explores the rural-urban overlap. He feels that as a person he represents the opposite, a cultural no-man's land; he isn't a Seattleite, and he isn't from of one of the families who have lived in Thorp for generations. His art brings the two together without the disingenuousness of hipsters wearing trucker hats or new restaurants hanging dead animals on the walls and serving ironic-chic dishes like wild-boar sloppy joes. He's neither here nor there. It's apt that he rehearsed his video performance in the literal space between—by singing in the car on his commute between Thorp and Seattle.
Beckman's Honky Tonk is comfortable in Seattle, and Seattle in it, which raises larger questions than whether this is a city boy bringing bumpkinness around to be ogled and mocked (which it clearly isn't). Have American cities simply evolved to become more rural? People are tearing out their lawns to grow food; there's talk of extending farmers markets year-round; the DIY movement is another version of old-stock self-reliance; used-clothing stores and home-salvage stores are like communal hand-me-down systems for a large, thrifty, self-contained family. When I posed this on The Stranger's blog, Slog, a commenter wrote, "if artistes live there, thorp ain't country." You tell it, Sarah Palin. The only "real" America is the one that defies stereotype, and the stereotypes are not so much actual places as obsessively tended facades. Shoreline artist Grant Barnhart—neighborhood matters in this discussion—has devoted a new body of work to those powerful, frightening facades and their toxic residue, which leaves red, white, and blue stains on certain of his canvases, underlying his imagery.
Football players, fireworks, eagles, cowboys, roadside motel signs, cheerleaders, rodeos, and beauty-pageant winners all share space in his carefully composed visual traffic jams. His leveling of the symbolic field calls to mind Lari Pittman's finely calibrated cacophonies. Barnhart, 30, who is from Topeka, Kansas, and went to art school in Columbus, Ohio, layers the aspirations of abstract expressionist gestures—the old pathos of drips and stains, which here becomes a kind of nostalgia—under the garish rituals and sign-symbols of country pop. He monumentalizes the nightmares and fantasies of the hinterlands in urban terms, in crowded neon images using colors that look anything but natural.
When he's painting the complex machinery of motorcycles or orchestrating an entire web of imagery using the lines on a football field as a compositional grid, Barnhart is on sure footing. He seems less sure of his own intentions when it comes to the construction of human faces. It's not that he isn't technically adept. It's that he doesn't seem to know quite how to position these people and their subjectivities. The most successful have the blankness of expression you see in racist mammy dolls; the faces are not connected to a spirit inside their bodies, but instead have been self-consciously constructed from without, like people striving to live up to stereotypes—the football player, the cheerleader, the cowboy. Barnhart's more realistic-looking faces are expressionless in a more banal way.
Most of Barnhart's work is not specific to any time and place, but he sure can nail a particular moment. The four-by-five-foot painting Dream Catcher is a portrait of the hard hit by Chuck Bednarik (whited-out, celebrating) that knocked Frank Gifford out cold in a 1960 Eagles-Giants NFL game. It was a hit that changed both of their lives, and Barnhart paints it as a spiritual moment, a moment when something is transferred between bodies, an out-of-body situation physicalized in paint, that fleshy medium. (It reminds me of The Conversion of St. Paul by Caravaggio.)
It's perfect that the drum line from Garfield High School accompanied the opening night of this exhibition of luscious American portraits. The players and their crowd spilled out onto the Ballard street in a loud celebration—not of any athletic triumph this time but of the winningness of the paintings themselves.