Bill Beckley. The Name of the Rose

Bill Beckley (Hamburg, Pennsylvania, 1946) is one of the main exponents of international Narrative Art, which he approaches starting from the 60s with a conceptual approach strongly influenced by semiotic studies.  His first works, originally defined as Story Art, are tables composed by photographic shots combined with didactic texts, initially written by pen and then typewritten, alternatively related to the image or ambiguously fictitious and free from the subject. While the image connotes the situation of the story, the arbitrariness of words, in addition to being indefinitely evocative, brings out the codified nature of every communicative language formed by conventional signs whose power of signification transcends the boundary between truth and lies. The oscillation and the integration between visual and verbal languages, that even when they are not explicit remain the latent ideological presuppositions of the whole artistic operation, is one of the distinguishing features of a coherent poetics that over the years has experimented with varying degrees of balance the dialogue between conceptual rigor and emotional involvement.

The exhibition The Name of the Rose, currently visitable at Studio G7 gallery, focuses on the photographic image of the rose, a formal archetype and visual stereotype that the artist has elaborated with different outcomes in every phase of his artistic research. The chronological excursus then starts from the triptych Roses Are, Violets Are, Sugar Are (1974) in which the rose is represented through its stem, which from thorny becomes smooth and then dissolves into a strip of grains of sugar, against a backdrop of red, blue and yellow monochromatic panels. The title recalls the stanzas of a childish rhyme that becomes the narrative substratum of a reflection on the painting inspired by the series Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue painted by Barnett Newman between 1966 and 1970. On the verbal level the title chosen by Beckley continues Newman’s quote vertigo, who in turn alluded to Edward Albee’s comedy Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? presented in 1962, already referring to the Disney song Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? (1933) in a dizzying progression of references increasingly oriented towards nonsense. In the same way, the iconic presence of the three primary colors that became taboo after Mondrian made them absolute princes, is blurred and diluted by the superimposition of the floral stems and the sugar line, phenomenal elements distilled in an abstract key that seek a possible mediation between the unpredictability of reality and conceptual rationality.

In 1977 the rose returns in Elements of Romance, a double composition of three photographic plates whose combination recalls the outline of a sculpture by Sol LeWitt belonging to the artist. Also in this case it is an attempt to bring together minimalism and romance (or perhaps the umpteenth pretext to photograph a rose in a non-obvious way). The apparent modular symmetry of the work in fact supports various levels of contradiction, ranging from the change of location of the three elements framed in identical panels in the two works, to their compromise with a deeply human time (the candle goes out, the rose fades and the bottle of wine is emptied) and their inevitable assimilation to the perturbing thematic strand of vanitas.

Beckley’s work, while recognizing the power of minimalist formalism adopted by compositional geometry, the attention paid to the process and the demonstrative and tautological value of the sequence, is constantly open to randomness and to the temptation of beauty, as it emerges from the most recent works presented in the gallery that make up the War of the Roses series (2017). In these shots, which depict sophisticated roses exploded by artificial sparks, the artist takes up the documentary attitude of the photograph he adopted at the beginning of his career (when he realized ephemeral environmental actions photographed in real time) distorting its aesthetic outcomes in a ostentatious fascination for the sublime senselessness that animates his action. The result is an almost kitschy image that shows how the eloquence of art receives new life from the comparison with the daily dimension of existence and that this aspect makes it so necessary for human beings. For this reason, the title, which evokes the bloody dynastic struggle fought in England between 1455 and 1485 between the Lancasters and the Yorks, was naturally associated by Beckley to the shots of this series as a conceptual element of rupture with minimalist intransigence and with the stereotype of ​​floral photography, but to a subsequent reflection, the artist realizes that the work also emphasizes the growing conflict that in recent years has characterized American society, today more than ever torn apart by violent ideological contrasts between parties, genres and ethnic groups . This analogy suggests that, although art is incapable of offering an effective moral solution to the concrete problems in which man struggles, its presence has the real function of reflecting their contradictions in an emblematic way, suggesting possible ways out of coercive and reductive thinking systems.


Bill Beckley. The Name of the Rose
February 17  – April 28 2018
Studio G7
Via Val D’Aposa 4A Bologna

Bill Beckley, Roses Are, Violets Are, Sugar Are, Cibachrome photographs, 1974, 95 x 228 cm / 37.5 x 90 inches Edition of 3

Bill Beckley, Elements of Romance, 1977, Fuji Crystal Archive paper, cm 256.54×127

Bill Beckley, War of the Roses 98, 2017, Fuji Crystal Archive paper, cm 182.88×121.92

Bill Beckley, War of the Roses 29, 2017, Fuji Crystal Archive paper, cm 182.88×121.92


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