Deborah Beck Mirrored by Therese Kenyon April 2010
Deborah Beck is captivated by the concurrence of the distorted, yet informative convex mirror that can pull a whole interior together into one contained image. She paints interiors using a convex mirror or a seeing eye amidst the layered patterns of grilles and wallpaper and creates a world to view but never to enter.
Beck’s most recent work is the culmination of a residency in Paris in 2005 when she set out to explore and study the interiors of historic houses that preserve the legacy of artists, poets and writers in Paris. She was excited by the textures and patterns within each house or room and made drawings of the complex and opulent patterns in the wallpapers. She also photographed them for reference and noticed upon her return to Australia that in a set of photographs of the ‘Maison de Victor Hugo’ at the Place des Vosges, was a convex mirror which captured the whole room.
She immediately responded to the surprise factor of discovering a way to recall the apartment through this glassy surface. ‘Hugo’s Wallpaper’ was consequently the first work in this series to be completed. Another large painting depicts the wallpaper in the cell where Marie Antoinette was held captive, the Fleur de Lys prominent in its design, lending it a certain poignancy. The next in the series is from an Australian historic house - Elizabeth Bay House Sydney, built and occupied by the Macleay family from the 1830s until 1849. Wall paper patterns are created by Beck using thickly textured paint and collage and the painting features a gilded convex mirror placed off-centre in the composition, reflecting the formal setting of table, chairs, red curtains and chandelier.
The convex mirror was a device used by Dutch artist, Jan van Eyck eg. (The Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife, 1434). The reflected world in that mirror told the viewer even more about how the occupants lived. As a contemporary artist Beck is more drawn to the juxtaposition of the flat but highly decorated wall, inset with a globular lens that is mercurial and shifting as the viewer moves. She meticulously documents with small drawings, gouaches and photographs, and builds up surfaces with antique Indian block stencils, as well as her own hand drawn and cut stencils to create intriguing and complex grounds. Into these a spherical eye is placed, not to see in but to reflect the surroundings behind the viewer - a highly unstable image within an almost photographically rendered grille or wall, thereby creating an impenetrable painted surface. The largest work is a jigsaw of panels fitted together to suggest the cultural layering that connects Beck’s travels to France and China where the rich red and the pattern of the grilles used in the Forbidden City are interlaced with early French designs.
The smaller drawings and gouaches on paper reference pop art (Rauschenberg style) in their combination of loose expressive strokes laid over and behind photographic remnants from other sources. These have a modernist ‘look’ using text and found images with mirrors underlying and intertwined as well but with no figurative reflection. The research drawings are figurative but use the layering of pencil marks to build up the foil for the surreal image in the glass lens against the flat patterns of the wallpaper designs.
The compressed image in the mirror is a ‘portrait’ of a particular occupant’s life without needing a face to be recorded. Even so, the circular shape of the mirror reflects the character and world of the non-sitter. This circle of light and reflection has a jewel-like presence as seen in antique gold lockets, watches and compasses that possibly contain or are themselves mementos of family histories. Beck has acquired her own convex mirror now and has viewed and translated other artists and people’s houses into her series.
Painting history would seem to be strange in the 21st century but this artist is an archivist and historian as well and she knows the richness and depth to be found in hidden and disregarded records and images. New art can be made from this detritus and new realizations about our own times can be pulled through to the present. Beck says she has tried to keep her two worlds separated but inevitably she senses that her dual passions merge and become something different and just as valid - creating richness, memory and an intimate interpretation of life.