Nathan Beard: Exit Music runs through Dec. 6, ARTicles Gallery, 1445 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, 727-898-6061, articlesstpete.com.
It’s been tough not to see Nathan Beard’s paintings over the past year. First his rhythmic, multihued abstractions popped up at Artlofts, the cache of artist studios tucked above Florida Craftsmen, for a one-night show last October. Then they decorated the lobby of American Stage Theatre Company, also in downtown St. Petersburg, in December and January. Over the summer, the paintings traveled to Tampa for a three-month exhibition at HCC Dale Mabry’s Gallery 221. And now they’re back on view in St. Pete at ARTicles Gallery in the Edge District, composing a show that runs until early December.
Oh, and Beard’s not done. An exhibition at St. Petersburg College is in the works for December, he says.
This burst of productivity is all the more surprising given that, until a few years ago, 39-year-old Beard had largely abandoned art-making for a budding career as an art consultant, greasing the wheels of sales of works by other artists to art collectors in Denver, where he lived. Then, looking for a change, he and his wife moved to St. Petersburg in 2010 after a road trip convinced them they were in love with Florida. Shortly after, a baby — now a 3-year-old girl — was on the way. Abruptly Beard felt it was time to stop wondering what the future held and start focusing on his life’s work, whatever that was.
“What do I want my daughter to see me as?” Beard recalls asking himself. “All this stuff was very complicated, and there was a little bit of fear in there.”
Listen closely, and you might hear an answer in the ARTicles exhibition, Exit Music, which pulls together 17 of Beard’s paintings to show how he arrived at the carefully wrought style of abstraction that is now his signature (one that is locally distinctive). The paintings couple swirling curvilinear gestures with precise stripes that divide the curves and create a two-way color gradient effect.
For example, the effect is felt powerfully in "Exit Music #30 (Red Shift)," a four-foot by nearly five-foot panel painted with acrylic figure eights that transition from cool blue to warm red. Arrays of stripes split the shapes using the same colors, but offset so that a blue curve is sliced into violet stripes, a violet curve into red stripes and so on. Optically, the results are akin to signing a song in a round, an echo-like fusion of repetition and slight variation.
“It’s coming close to what mystics have always thought,” Beard says of his philosophical intentions for the paintings. “That there are big patterns holding things together.”
Despite the exhibition title (which is also the first part of the title of each painting in the series), the paintings bear no relationship to actual music. Beard isn’t one of those artists who purports to channel sound into image through synesthesia; he doesn’t even listen to music in his studio for the most part. Rather, the connection is to a kind of existential interlude that Beard associates with the liminal moments of life, such as birth and extinction.
“I really liked the idea of there being some sort of song for each of us as we transition into whatever’s next.” Beard says.
Most of the exhibition’s paintings adhere to this style, but half a dozen illustrate how Beard found his way by experimenting with landscape and organic abstraction using alcohol stains on acrylic. More than many artists would, he wears his process of learning on his sleeve, along with his ambitions to succeed commercially. In art historical terms, his paintings evoke a hodgepodge of once-transgressive genres of post-World War II American abstraction, most obviously Op Art; by today’s standards, they’re easy on the eyes. Beard’s comfortable embrace of formalism, grounded in a loose worldview defined by change and interconnection, is owed in part to schooling (he earned a BFA in painting from Colorado State University, which had no truck with art world’s reigning conceptualism) and in part to his insights into the sausage-making of actually buying and selling paintings as an art consultant.
The experience taught him, “here’s how you want the art world to be, and here’s how it is,” Beard says. Now, he explains, “I’m not afraid to ask for what I want. [Consulting] took me out of that shell that some artists can remain in.”
When Beard and his wife, a schoolteacher, realized their daughter was soon to be born, they decided that he would become a stay-at-home parent, reconnecting with his art practice in the pauses between baby naps, feedings and play. (Some of his more voluptuously curve-filled canvases, Beard says, were initially inspired by the sensuality and intimacy of pregnancy.) In the end, he found an art that reflected his life.
“[Fatherhood] changed me. I still feel like the same person, but I’ve gotten older,” Beard says. “You can see in my life a vibrancy and a rhythm.”