The Irony and Ecstasy of Visual Culture in Ray Beldner’s “Appropriately”
Three collections of Ray Beldner’s work—“Counterfeit,” “101 Portraits,” and “Neon”—come together at Micaela Contemporary Projects this month. During a recent talk in San Francisco, Beldner explained that his “ideas can dictate the materials [he] use[s], or the materials become the message themselves,” whether those materials be water, wax, urine, neon, or even U.S. currency.
Beldner’s O, Yoko 2 (2002) presents a collage of American dollar bills, folded, sewn together, and overlaid with text from Yoko Ono’s book, grapefruit: A Book of Instructions and Drawings (1964). A series of simple commands printed in orange typeface asks viewers to consider their personal and emotional attachments to money. But, by altering its form, Beldner renders the currency non-functional and devoid of economic value. Ironically, this manipulation of form elevates the material to the upper echelons of fine art and effectively amplifies its value. In his Slave to the Dollar, 2014 (after Shepard Fairey’s OBEY, 2003) (2014), Beldner prints Shepard Fairey’s Obey logo across a tapestry of dollar bills and makes reference to Robert Indiana’s stylistic signage with a large sculptural letter “O.”
One could argue that the title of Beldner’s show “Appropriately” comes from the layers of image appropriation within the series “101 Portraits.” By pulling images from Google search and translating those digital pixels into pigments, Beldner makes composite images of cultural icons. Beldner questions the concept of celebrity and labels it bizarre by using a roster of well-known figures as wide-ranging as Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama, Andy Warhol, Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il, and Justin Timberlake. As if clipped from a passport or high school yearbook, each image is cropped at the neck and set against a dull background, as a headshot would be. Layers of opaque paint coat the works and mute each identity, leaving the images altered but with their likenesses still recognizable.
Kind Stranger (2007), from his “Neon” collection, features concentric circles of blue-lit letters with “i feel your love” centered in orange-red cursive. The installation feels like a sensory-rich dartboard, with the pronouns “you” and “I” left purposefully undefined. In form and concept, Kind Stranger (2007) references Bruce Nauman’s The True Artist Helps The World By Revealing Mystic Truths (1967), offering a coded message about the art establishment.
Taken as a whole, Beldner’s works function as a profound critique, if complicated, about the economic structure of the contemporary art world. He reveals the extent to which celebrity imagery and branded content have permeated our visual lexicon—especially at digital frequencies. Instead of making a one-note criticism on capitalism or the commodification of visual culture, Beldner pivots on his multiple vantage points of visual artist, teacher, and art appraiser to put forth a rigorous, well-rounded investigation of the art establishment from within.
“Appropriately” is on view at Micaela Contemporary Projects, San Francisco, Feb. 1–Mar. 15, 2015.