by Jessica Anne Clark
through October 30
When Shawn Beeks found himself immersed in Moby-Dick, Herman Melville’s ode to a certain fair-skinned whale, the impulse to create put him in good company. He is but one drop in a veritable sea of artists who have drawn inspiration from and paid homage to this particular American classic. Beeks’ take is no aimless rehash of well-beaten tropes. Dick, a solo show on view at Slingluff Gallery, gives Ahab’s quest present-day traction by way of America’s dependence on oil—the lamp oil sought by whalers a mere prelude to modern day petroleum dependence. Though submerged in dark topics Dick happily retains much of Beeks’ signature gallows humor.
Dick is comprised of fourteen works: eleven pen and ink drawings, two small statuettes, and a small mixed media installation. Beeks’ drawings are composed of fine line detail coupled with deft grey washes on sturdy sheets of watercolor paper. As most of Dick’s imagery came to Beeks through specific sections of text, each piece is named by an exact passage. Though Beeks’ mark-making is controlled, his compositions are writhing and alive. In There is one god that is lord over the earth and one captain that is lord of the Pequod, a man (Ahab presumably) appears with head thrown back, eyes closed and beard shooting out in twisting tentacle curves. His torso morphs into the head of a whale, a harpoon protruding out of the whale’s nose/Ahab’s crotch. A small cloud of black explodes from this point. Ahab and Dick have become one in a fit of agony and ecstasy. Though parts of Ahab’s tentacle-beard encircle the whale’s lower jaw it is difficult to discern who is restraining whom. While the beard traps the whale shape, the positioning of Ahab’s torso makes it look as if his arms are tied behind his back. An oily porthole appears behind Ahab’s upturned head; a checkered material resembling a racing flag bunches on either side of his torso. This drawing leaves the viewer to decide who “the one captain” truly is.
In his artist statement as well as in a video on Slingluff’s website, Beeks identifies “parallels between the whaling industry of the 19th century, the institutionalized slavery of Africans, and the modern day dependence on crude oil” as Dick’s main focus. In many ways, the first two images on Slingluff’s east wall act as important thematic precursors to the next twelve works, alluding to Beeks’ own angle of approach to Melville’s literary beast. In Death to the living, long life to the killer. Success to the sailors’ wives and greasy luck to the whalers the words “Death to the Killers/Long life to the Living” stretch in a stylish hand below an old harpoon. Its blade protrudes from a whittled tip lined with coiled rope. A thicker rope runs along the length of the harpoon, tied in segments, finishing in a noose hanging threateningly from the left end. This statement is filled with a gleeful violence. Ahab and his crew go forth in a quest for mortal domination; a creature must die for them to succeed. While the United States’ acquisition of petroleum may seem less gruesome from the front seat of an SUV, many would argue that oil pumps are no less bloodstained than a whaler’s harpoon. This connection to the United States is firmly established by A wild mystical, sympathetic feeling was in me; Ahab’s quenchless feud seemed mine which depicts a whale being impaled by the staff of an American flag, driven in by a man with flowing hair. An oil patch appears on his right shoulder; its placement gives the shirt a Western feel. Though this man seems commanding and majestic, one can’t help but recall the earlier image of Ahab unraveled. Just as Ahab loses control to his obsession, are we not similarly reduced by our oil dependence?
This theme of violent domination extends through the swinging noose, overlaying specks of menacing black ink. While the noose could be intended to represent the suicidal nature of Ahab’s obsession, Beeks’ statement points towards another black mark in America’s past: lynching. Again, the needs and rights of one—be it one country, one captain, or one race—outweigh those of another; all evils produced in the meeting of such needs become necessary and justified. This theme is strongly supported in the last two pieces, to the left of the entrance. I. A fast whale fish belongs to the party fast to it depicts three small rowboats closing in on a lone, defiant whale tail in the distance. Two small dogs point and bark tail-ward from their respective prows. Baleen-like lines break forth from threatening clouds. Darkened by shadows, the blackened tail (presumably captured) breaks its chains in II. A loose fish is fair game for anybody who can soonest catch it. Water drips from below its tight shackle. In a grand arc, the chain flies gloriously. This whale may have broken free but will not go un-hunted.
Where Death…whalers” proclaims Dick’s thematic focus, Now in his heart, Ahab’s had some glimpse of this namely: all means are sane, my motive and objective mad (the first image) serves to set the tone. “DICK” appears in a sort of tattoo script, the “I” and “K” vertical harpoons with thin, curly blades pointing downward from tapered tips. These harpoons also seem to double as penises, dangling and ineffectual, the blades becoming streams of black fluid. Stiff and menacing tools of death are rendered limp and comical. Beeks’ humor as well as his skill as a draftsperson prevents Dick from being an exercise in drudgery, the millionth crack at a well-worn classic. The show’s heavy-heart is made palatable in Beeks’ sure hands. He finds a way to both inform and entertain. Dick’s three-dimensional offerings are especially playful, making ample use of their long-winded titles. Two miniature mounted whale heads hang on either side of There is one god…Pequod. A small wooden box full of wax-sealed letters rests on a wooden shelf branded by burned markings. The whale on the left is spotted with swollen barnacles. Its baleen exposed in a sort of grimace and eye bulging in slight discomfort, this whale lives up (or down) to its title: There is a certain mathematical symmetry in the sperm whale the right whale sadly lacks. A smooth, white sperm whale is affixed to the second plaque with its blackened maw somewhat ajar.
Though Beeks’ show stands on its own, it is worth addressing Dick’s place in the whole Moby-Dick zeitgeist. On the local spectrum, the last two years have brought at least three “Dick” themed shows, the most notable being Tristan Lowe’s Mocha Dick at the Fabric Workshop. In 2004 Kurt Andersen’s Studio 360 dedicated an entire hour to Moby-Dick as part of its “American Icons” series—the show rebroadcast on WHYY in November 2009 and again in 2010. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact quality in Moby-Dick that makes it such an inexhaustible source for artistic inspiration, or how the novel has retained its must-read status. Its presence in the Western canon is not explanation enough. Perhaps it is Ahab’s obsession that entices artists time and again: the artistic process is often fixated and fanatical. Dick does not seem the product of mania though it is certainly thorough, detailed and specific. It is Beeks’ comedic cool that keeps him from being consumed. He emerges from the waters untouched, with a simple verdict: “Ahab was a dick.” While this comment (appearing at the end of Beeks’ artist statement) may seem dismissive, I think it functions to dispel potential clouds of pretension and literary snobbishness.
Melville defied artists to portray the object of Ahab’s obsession. “Any way you must needs conclude that the great leviathan is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted.” As artists love a good challenge, this decree is in a state of perpetual disregard. It is because Beeks recognizes Moby Dick as both symbol and flesh that Dick works despite Melville’s assertion. Beeks is interested in the physical act of the hunt in all its bloody detail, as well its symbolic implications. He moves between the two with a light touch, making matter and metaphor equally available. In a show contemplating domination, Beeks allows the viewer to take the reigns.
Ms. Clark is a freelance artist, writer, babysitter and coffee-drinker. She recently received an MFA in painting from the University of the Arts.