Mark Beyer's first collection in 12 years delves into the city's strangeness
In the narrow storefront of the shop and gallery space of Los Angeles' Family Books near West Hollywood, a small crowd was gathered for the cult-famous artist Mark Beyer's most recent opening. Hung on a single crisp white wall are the darkly funny images that fixate on Albuquerque's underworld where it bubbles over into news headlines. The images are largely rendered in flat black-and-white detail across planed landscapes given density by stippled patterns. Visitors of all ages crawl in out of the night, respectfully pausing in the doorway to gaze up at the framed panels, while others page through the zine that corresponds with the show. That Beyer's career—which began in the 1970's—remains of such keen interest, maintaining a level not just of relevance, but resonance, evidences the singular, self-invented world he has created and the conviction with which he has sustained it throughout his career.
This latest work, which takes the title Ne'er-do-Wellers (the original panels of which are on display at Family Books until December, though Albuquerque will see a release of the collected work in zine form at Corpus Arts on Nov. 3), visually details the news that locals have likely been unable to shake since reading the mystifying blurbs in print. The range here is inclusive of the curious, the humorous and the downright unsettling, successfully capturing the way in which these can all intersect. For example, the single color plate in the collection (which is also the cover of the zine) depicts the strange incident of the man who one morning last May was discovered in the bosque, his palms hammered to a Cottonwood. In Beyer's rendition, the bizarre story is disarmingly sublimated into a crucifixion. On a deformed cross, the man suffers under the brilliant high desert sun, his blood falling on the sandy hills and the indifferent creatures below. There is a certain incongruity between the content and the way in which Beyer renders it that has long given viewers pause—this was the crux of what fascinated reviewers like Colson Whitehead who enthused about Beyer's comic collection, Agony, “[it's] one of the most hilarious books I’ve ever read, but … your mileage will vary depending on your feelings about the inherent comedy of suicide by acid bath, peanut-loving sea creatures, and forfeiting the security deposit on your apartment because you’ve saturated every surface with blood.” There it is—the junction of pain and a great cosmic joke.
“I just don't know how to paint,” Beyer said as we sat across the couch from one another in Trapset Zines headquarters, the outfit that is producing Beyer's latest print publication. With what seems to be an innate humbleness, despite having met with much success in his career (his comics and illustrations have been published by LA Weekly, The Village Voice, Entertainment Weekly, Raw Magazine, NME and have appeared on MTV and numerous album covers), Beyer outlined the process for creating the cover of Ne'er-do-Wellers, which typifies an approach he has frequently utilized in his work. The cover of Ne'er-do-Wellers, and many of Beyer's paintings are back-painted, a technique that has a long history in folk art. In Beyer's case, he coats a sheet of plexiglass with a layer of matte Krylon, which gives the plexiglass enough surface to drawn on. Then, a detailed drawing is completed, filled in with acrylic. It was a technique that he hit on after what he described as “disastrous” attempts at painting on canvas. The interior pages are all pen and ink drawings.
“I couldn't draw a realistic portrait if somebody held a gun to my head,” Beyer explained as I looked over the original proofs for the publication—Beyer's first in 12 years. Therein were the stories of a person who stole 816 shopping carts over the course of several months in 2015 (“It's really hard to draw that many shopping carts,” Beyer said. Which made me think about how hard it would be to draw even one shopping cart), the police helicopter that was shot down while hunting for a murder suspect in the summer of 2005, or the third-year UNM law student who urinated on a whole family during a Metallica concert this past August. That these bizarre real world stories are translated from terra firma to Beyer's deliberately strange otherworld creates an interesting dissonance that makes peering into it humorous, sure, but also provocative. “I don't know how to work in any other way,” Beyer said—acknowledging, however, his aim of not repeating himself, and continuing to pursue work that he finds challenging.
What Beyer has achieved is an art brut style that is immediately identifiable as all his own. He never went to art school, though he applied and was rejected several times. “I had a lot of belief in what I was doing, I don't know why,” he explained, though several friends on the East Coast—where Beyer is originally from—encouraged him to continue his work untempered by formal education. “I guess I valued their opinions more than admissions directors.” Which is perhaps what makes Beyer's ability and fully developed style so transfixing—it's self-definition and endurance despite the narrowness and meanness of the world. In fact, Beyer's world seems very liberated from that place where many of us exist.
Beyer fans and the curious can pick up a copy of Ne'er-do-Wellers this Friday, Nov. 3 at Corpus Arts (123 Seventh Street NW) at the release party between 6:30 and 9:30pm or order one anytime online at trapset.bigcartel.com. While readers may find the work to be an avenue to new ways of considering the city and the wider world around them, Beyer is much more unassuming about the work, “I don't have any profound answers,” he said, though many of us may still find some in his work.