Randy Beckelheimer: “Northwest Passage”
at Abmeyer + Wood Fine Art by matthew kangas
Ferris Wheel, 2014, Oil on canvas, 36" x 60"
Randy Beckelheimer’s debut show at Abmeyer + Wood brought a serious and sparkling point of view to unexpected scenes within the urban environment of Seattle. The nine oil on canvas paintings joined six offbeat views of Hunters Point Shipyard in San Francisco near the 52-year-old artist’s studio. Educated in art and art history at University of California, Santa Barbara (BFA, 1985), Beckelheimer shifted from Color Field abstractions a few years ago to photo-based realism. Eschewing traditional “local color” approaches—long common to amateur painting groups and successful commercial illustrators hereabouts—the San Francisco resident (who has shown there since his 1991 debut at Triangle Gallery) brought a fresh angle, discovering overlooked areas of industrial decay, jumbled street intersections, and as yet undeveloped expanses of land. For example, Time Machine and Cranes (all works 2014) have extremely long views of their shared subject in the distance, orange container-dock cranes. Downtown and East Marginal (Ghost Bike) share horizontal overpass bridges at their centers, zooming in and out of focus, with the former showing the only skyline-skyscraper view of the group and the latter juxtaposing a thick concrete overpass with an upright street sign atop of which is an abandoned white bicycle.
What makes these works particularly haunting and beautiful is the total absence of the human figure. The viewer becomes the strolling pedestrian or roving driver, all alone in the dawn sunrise of Capitol Hill, peeking at a huge construction site pit with eerie nighttime security illumination. Dark and light also determine Underpass (closest perhaps to the artist’s earliest abstract paintings) with its blocks of shadowed and shaded blues and blacks, all held in check by a brilliant glimpse of a sun-filled street scene beyond. These contrast well with the Bay Area settings wherein the sun may be brighter, but the industrial rubble, as in Tires and HPS-38, is just as appealingly depicted. There are no warnings of climate change here, nor fears of carbon emissions. Rather, as in the larger Seattle scene Ferris Wheel, smog seems dissipated by moisture over Elliott Bay as the circular shape of the huge waterfront gizmo overlaps and echoes the white orb of the setting sun in a gorgeous yellow sky. Thanks to Beckelheimer’s strong formal control, what could have been another realist cliche is a radiant artwork that requires a closer examination, which, as in all these works, is repaid handsomely.
Wider Views of Urban San Francisco
By Lani Asher February 8, 2011
“You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours.”
“Or the question it asks you, forcing you to answer, like Thebes through the mouth of the Sphinx.”
(Marco Polo and Kublai Khan)
—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Wider Views of Urban San Francisco, painter Randy Beckelheimer’s current show at ArtZone 461 Gallery, focuses on San Francisco’s Hunters Point, a decaying naval shipyard, the former home of a nuclear laboratory, and a federal Superfund site populated with decrepit buildings and a large community of artists who have remained because of the shipyard’s remote location, the pathos of a forgotten place, and cheap rents. In contrast to the enduring artist community, the surrounding Bayview neighborhood’s economic stumble has sparked the exit of many of the descendants of the African American shipyard workers.
The shipyard is geographically surrounded by water on three sides and is circumscribed by clear light and good weather. In Beckelheimer’s poetic paintings, the artist offsets the ghostly and apocalyptic landscape of the abandoned shipyard and the nearby but recently demolished PG&E smokestacks with his depictions of the beautiful light. In the spirit of the Venetian Renaissance painters Bellini, Titian, and Giorgione, he creates a soft atmospheric rendering of the shipyard by painting wet into wet oil paint, creating layers of transparent glazes. The harsh subject matter, seen through these glazes, creates a romantic fiction that seduces the viewer and tells profound truths like a good novel does, ones deeper and more meaningful than mere reportage can offer.
Newly arrived residents and a recent light-rail line down the Third Street corridor have helped invigorate the Bayview neighborhood. The developer Lennar Corporation imagines the shipyard’s future as mostly market rate housing, built in close proximity to a nuclear and chemical dump. The ongoing toxic cleanup of the shipyard temporarily forced Beckelheimer out of his studio. This removal is addressed in HPS-20 (2008), which shows one of the enormous trenches created while the developer’s contractors excavated and removed the sewer system pipes that contained radioactive waste.
Beckelheimer’s paintings reference fifteen years of photographing the shipyard and the surrounding community. Although originally an abstract painter, the artist’s habit of photographing and researching the shipyard led him to representational painting. A number of somber grayscale paintings in the show are based on historical images he found at the public library. He sometimes composes using “photo stitching,” a computer imaging technique for tacking images together into crude templates by combining multiple photographs, taken at different times of day, compounding them into whole paintings.
HPS-29 (2010), a ten-foot-long painting, depicts a reinvented shipyard landscape in the spirit of pioneer Bay Area photographer Eadweard Muybridge. Muybridge created large-format panoramic images of both urban and nature scenes by combining multiple images into large, spectacular single images. Filmmaker Hollis Frampton said that Muybridge’s early panoramic views “referred to a simultaneity which is at once plausible but perfectly impossible.”2 In similar fashion, Beckelheimer’s panoramic paintings of the Hunters Point Shipyard force a viewer to question traditional notions of time and space, as well as the relationship between landscape photography and painting, history, memory, and illusion. This feat is accomplished though the lens of a camera, the painter’s hand, and the riddle of the sphinx.
1. Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities (Orlando: Harcourt Books, 1974), 44.
2. Rebecca Solnit, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (New York: Viking, 2003), 160.
3. Lani Asher had an art studio at Hunters Point Shipyard for eighteen years, but has since moved her studio to the Mission district. For four years, she was a member of the Citizens Advisory Board, created by the federal Superfund law, which advised the Navy on toxic cleanup efforts. She was also an active member of Communities for a Better Environment, an environmental health and justice organization. She thanks Nan Kornfeld and shipyard artist Larry Morace for their insightful comments.