The late, beloved American painter, Andrew Wyeth (1917–2006), once mused about his most famous work, Christina’s World (1948, collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York), that if he had been “any good” as an artist, he would have left Christina entirely out of the picture. He realized that idea fifteen years later with Her Room (1963), which includes the pink fabric of Christina’s dress as curtains, and is a consummate portrait of his wife Betsy James Wyeth, who, in fact, posed for the original image of Christina for Christina’s World. For Wyeth, absence only deepened emotional resonance and mystery that he challenged viewers to find for themselves, one among other reasons Wyeth’s art is far from simple realism.
Jeffery Becton has produced work that echoes the ineffable longing and poetic quietude of Wyeth’s work, where human presence is softly whispered in other, more mysterious ways—a rack of antlers, a table clock without hands, a soup tureen. I suspect Wyeth might have understood and applauded. Becton’s essential subject, like Wyeth’s, is the littoral—the spaces where land and sea meet silently, merging into each other, ceaselessly transforming into something utterly new, unnameable. Becton is as much the master of islands and coastlines as any captain of working vessels plying offshore waters near his Deer Isle home and studio. He knows where the ledges are and how time and tides affect safe passage.
Becton is a photographer who paints. He paints images through the evolving late 20th- and 21st-century technology of digital photography that he helped pioneer in the early days of personal computers and Adobe Photoshop. Along with work by a younger generation of photo artists like Jeff Wall, Gregory Crewdson, Candida Hofer, Axel Hutte, and others, Becton began to explore heroic scale, subjective narratives, and new tools to stitch together images that his teachers never would have imagined possible for photography. Becton’s work evolved slowly, incrementally, over several decades into the later-in-life montages that have become increasingly abstract, albeit assembled from multiple sources of his own “straight” photography over many years, past and present. Along with the human figure, time takes a holiday in his ambiguously untethered-to-precise date-and-place compositions. He has built a visual practice that allows for the seamless meshings of morning light into afternoon water, lapping, caressing, occasionally pounding isolated boats, flooded walls, submerged floors, the outside and inside of ancient (by an American time scale) homesteads by the sea, ravaged and empty but strangely furnished and seemingly unoccupied.
Manipulating photographs implies a certain disregard for outward appearance, or at least a sense of humor embedded among many of Becton’s images. Whatever Louise Brooks or Pandora’s Box silent film director, Georg Pabst, might have thought, Becton’s Pandora’s Chest is the embodiment of a double-take and photography’s multiple perceptual mysteries. The chest repeats the seascape on the horizon through the door that is also repeated on the chest, the wall behind and even in the mirror above. Like cinema, time and place are unfixed, settings and story subject to flashback and retelling from differing points of view. Unlike music, theme and variation can be experienced all at once, literally enabling the viewer to take in different sizes and scales at a glance, challenging certain preconceived notions of what photographs mean. Becton’s chest is seductive in its simplicity of a seascape that is both inside and outside, simultaneously calming and disquieting.
Hand-built wooden domestic furnishings by farmers and fishermen, for whom simple carpentry was a survival skill from the Colonial era through the mid-19th century, are still found in both modest and more stately homes throughout rural New England. Painted furniture, however, was often reserved for wedding chests, concealing the bride’s intimate linens and wedding night bedclothes. Built for sturdiness and function more than comfort, sensual New England folk furniture is an oxymoron. In any case, Becton’s references to “Pandora” suggest seething, sensual secrets residing within and, perhaps, how outer, exterior worlds invade inner lives. It may be telling that only the trash container and a converted orientalist-China Trade table lamp crowning the chest are untouched by the invasive sea that washes through the entire room.
And, if one were to link Becton’s sensibility to other artists, one would necessarily invoke a North Atlantic perspective, evidenced in the art of such diverse masters as Caspar David Friedrich, J.M.W. Turner, Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, and even the expansive, crumbling textures and dark, visionary post-modern landscapes of Anselm Kiefer. They are panoramas of our environmentally challenged present as well as some unknown but likely not too distant future where art and culture float athwart the laws of nature. These altered photographs present the familiar stuff of art—landscape, still life, traces of human activity—as layered, mutated, juxtaposed, transformed. His places are variously familiar and adrift, hidden and revelatory. They are like missing words: unspoken, on the tip of the tongue.
If Picasso had a digital camera, he would have instantly understood Becton’s work. He would see interiors that are simultaneously outside, and know that the slippages between land and sea, reality and abstraction, represent new ways of seeing. Like Gauguin’s The Spirit of the Dead Watching, Becton’s space is that moment between waking and dreaming, haunted by what John Fowles once described as that black paradox at the heart of the human condition—when the fulfillment of the desire becomes the death of the desire. Becton’s work often depicts distant views brought uncomfortably close; weather about to change; the seduction of mysterious shorelines, their distant terrors coming unmoored and detached; black clouds and walls of water breaking onto and overtaking broken boats, or how a raging sea feels, far more than how it looks, in sailors’ nightmares.
Becton’s first love is history, a subject he majored in during undergraduate studies at Yale. His response to both historical and recent complicity in terrorizing fellow citizens—Black lives taken as if they did not matter, and relentless, systemic racial violence over four centuries and counting—is seen in several of his montage photographs referring to the historical Middle Passage of the Atlantic slave trade. Here, Becton alludes to what Barack Obama famously observed (quoting William Faulkner): “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
The sallow, scarified white face with eyes closed is a ghostly indictment of white indifference and blindness to slavery, its aftermath and troubling persistence in America’s complex and difficult story. The calm demeanor of an artificial white face is based on Becton’s photograph of a ceramic table lamp originally created by an artist-friend, Mark Kindschi. Becton’s manipulated image is vaguely reminiscent of folk art “face jugs” from the 17th and 18th centuries, originally produced by African-American slaves in South Carolina. Face vessels by early slaves seem to have had religious or burial significance and, according to scholars, may also reflect a need to capture individuality under the identity-erasing conditions of slavery where only the slaves might know their own African names in their own languages. Doubtless the double irony of Becton’s image of a white face from an object designed to function as a source of light, now evoking the metaphorical darkness of the slave trade, is not lost on the artist. A second version of Middle Passage is more suggestively underwater, a drowned visage in a shallow, sun-dappled sea.
Becton understands that a white artist commenting on Black trauma is fundamentally and always problematic. But Becton has described this image as possibly belonging to his own distant, mostly unspoken family history and the likelihood his Southern ancestors played a role in perpetuating the economic conditions enabling the Middle Passage—applicable in some measure to most white families in America before the Civil War, north and south. That racial violence and endemic inequity persists in contemporary American culture after four centuries is unconscionable—eyes wide shut as Becton’s imagery would suggest. Its cause and effect, its continuing presence today is, in part, a function of passive silence and willful blindness. For thoughtful, inwardly-looking artists like Becton, the work is about bringing differences together in his stitched-together medium of montage. He suggests difference is not only possible but essential, a necessary means toward reconciling—integrating—our shared humanity. In black and white photography—digital and analog—both are required, essential, to produce any image that can be seen. The same white face in his And the Sea Shall Give Up Her Dead (2020) is unsettling, with one open eye and one eye closed, as if to say seeing and not seeing one another haunts our long, fraught history. Becton’s work travels middle passages eliding boundaries between shoreline and sea, time and place, absence and presence, sensual beauty and uncomfortable truth.
Image at top: Jeffery Becton, Burn Tool.