I am the least constant, most confused person outside my safe rectangle of canvas. Safe because it is mine, my world, my rules, my flat Earth. ~ Steven Beercock.
Seeing his work is like finding your uncle’s paintings in a shed; then noticing how weird they are and how eccentric he is; and then slowly realizing they are really, really good, and he’s a genuine artist.
When I first encountered samples from Steven Beercock’s “Tall Man” series of 30 images, while swiping through my Instagram feed, I thought they were the wacky, oddball paintings of an amateur, folk art, surrealist painter. I said to my girlfriend, “What’s with the long-legged, big feet paintings?” Though I certainly liked them, literally and figuratively, I hadn’t recognized how complex and interesting they were, especially taken together, both technically and thematically.
Steven Beercock is an English, 60 year old, self-taught artist, living with his Italian wife in Sicily. He only started painting in 2014, but has remarkably completed over 250 paintings so far. His original motivation was simply “the strange idea of filling the bare walls of his new home with his own, non-existent paintings,” but there was a deeper, underlying impetus:
I think the real reason I began painting was the desperate need for dialogue with the world. My – chosen – physical world is far too small and suffocating. Nobody wants to dream alone.
In my written correspondence with Steven, he expressed core ideas about art I happen to agree with. Painting is a means of communication, of sharing one’s inner vision, and of manifesting it in visual form within the rectangle of the canvas. The canvas, or “flat Earth” as he described it, is a place where one can recreate the world and the heavens, and is the only place where one has real freedom and control.
In these deceptively simple paintings, Steven realizes a dreamy, cinematic vision in which benevolent, headless giants roam the landscape performing bizarre but generous acts. The result, as unlikely the source and medium, is a unique and relevant vision of contemporary art.
The Tall Man Paintings:
Do you remember those wonderful scenes of Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters sculpting the mountain out of his mashed potatoes or shaving foam? I feel a bit like him. I see tallman everywhere in everything, like I have been “visited.”~ Steven Beercock.
The artist’s own analogy for focusing on the tallman theme also captures one of the most appealing aspects of his work. It has that quality of someone working obsessively, as a bit of an outsider, and in his own way, for the intrinsic worth of doing so, and out of a genuine love for painting. He’s had neither the benefit nor the limitations of a contemporary art education, and so he does something that’s anathema to it – he paints personal images from his imagination. It’s a direct and honest approach that one has to be naive, oblivious, or in defiance of the dominant art narrative in order to practice. His work is un-corrupted by the ideological excesses of contemporary art theory; postmodernism; conceptualism; and the anti-art legacy of Duchamp… He made these paintings as if he didn’t know he wasn’t supposed to, and not even supposed to be able to. In that sense they are refreshing, honest, and innocent.
On first glance the tallman reminded me of Robert Crumb’s famous “Keep on Trucking'” cartoon of the late 60’s
This, however, is misleading. If we haven’t seen something before, we grasp at the first association. Crumb’s characters are goofy, groovy, nonchalant, self-satisfied, and strutting’. Beercock’s tallmen are benign behemoths making minor miracles only witnessed by birds, slugs, moths, sheep and fish…
Each painting tells a story, if we can tease it out, though it doesn’t need to make sense in consensual reality.
In Flightful, above, ostriches, penguins, dodos, and kiwis go on a carousel ride for flightless birds, in which they are able to experience the sensation of flying for the first time. The realistic rendering of details in places is a bit rough, but more than adequate to tell the story, while the anatomy and various poses of the birds are rather elaborate. The idea is endearing, but the painting crystallizes it into memorable imagery. Perhaps only a headless person would think to give flightless birds the experience of soaring.
The Milky Way
The Milky Way is one of my favorites, but I can’t beat the artist’s own description of the painting:
I put it (the milky way) on canvas, stared at it like that night and was overwhelmed with a feeling of the need to express my love and appreciation of my amazing wife. I imagined him (me?) extracting milk from the milky way and filling an old copper bath. (note the pipeline to the stars) Then I thought her bath would need rose petals. So he suggested tickling the stars and they fell…as rose petals, of course. ~ Steven Beercock
The tallman gives a microphone to a chicken in order to give it a voice and let it tell the world its humble story. But more particularly, the tallman’s trying to, as Steven put it, “get the scoop of the century (if not centuries) and finally ask the damned creature why the hell he’s crossing the road!”
Multicolored slugs become airborne, floating in puffy individual clouds after scaling tallman’s legs, in Debut Flight. More naturalistically, we also witness “the flight of the fledgling song thrush with her parents.”
In Blackpool Rock tallman gives treats to the gulls, but the one in the foreground takes advantage and makes off with a credit card. In the background Black Pool Tower mirrors the shape and color of tallman’s trousers. Several of his paintings so far feature sites from where he grew iup, and manifest a quality of longing for the lost world of his childhood.
Black sheep just wanna’ have fun
The black sheep in Black sheep just wanna’ have fun descend the hill in unconventional ways for sheep. A couple of sheep parasail, one hang-glides, one can be seen careening down in a shopping cart; one does a back flip on a skateboard, and still another has made the trip in a tire… Here, the tallman is based on chalk figures in the hills of England.
The underlying meaning, and why tallman is headless.
I have always (drowned myself and others in a swirl of meaningless words. Was it Hopper who said something like, “If I could explain it, I wouldn’t have to paint it”? ~ Steven Beercock.
Not all the paintings are as whimsical or charming as the ones I shared above. Some are more somber or have political undertones. All are tied together with the presence of the headless entity. While I was pleased with the variations on a theme the body of work presented, I was also drawn to the mystery of what the recurring figure represents. Surely he is a metaphor for something: an underlying philosophical orientation, psychological state, or spiritual dimension…
An artist doesn’t make 30 images of such an unusual subject without there being a compelling reason, and in this case it’s an artist who produced over 250 images in just 6 years (which is about a painting a week). I asked him point blank, a couple times, why tallman is headless, and I don’t think he really knows, or hasn’t yet figured out precisely how to verbalize it. Perhaps that’s why we have 30 paintings so far.
Headlessness and exacting abstract language don’t appear to go together. Can we even expect language to be able to encapsulate everything? It’s one of the dire mistakes of the late 20th century art paradigm to reduce all art to ideas, when visual art is its own language that takes place outside of linguistics. Unlike written and spoken language, an image doesn’t unfold in time, but is eminently still. It’s a different kind of communication, which can leap the over usual language barriers, and communicates a unique terrain of substance that may not be expressible via any other means.
Art has freed me from the shackles of constantly expecting or even needing a explanation for everything. The great thing now – perhaps it’s my age – I no longer care two pennies about whether it “makes sense.” Paradoxically, this frees up my imaginative flow. Basically, anything goes. I can wait to find out why – if ever – it went.
That was a long-winded way of saying “I am now trusting my instinct.” 🙂 ~ Steven Beercock
All that said, I’d still like to make a go of it, and try to hammer out some sort of interpretation. The artist, while he may not be able (or perhaps willing) to nail down his tallman, can tell us how it all started, and that’s with the painting, Swift.
The series began here. Most of this scene is my recollections of a dream from the previous night. I dreamt I was flying through the tiny Yorkshire village of my childhood, Clifford, I was zooming along, at knee level when I came across something like this guy. I can’t say whether he had a head or not as it was misty, but there were hundreds of swifts zooming, a bit like me, and they seemed to be coming out of where his head should have been. What I have gleaned till now from my own reflections and from the feedback of many others who’ve seen it at some of my shows is that (wait for it, wait for it…the pretentious Freudian bit) this was myself as a child looking at myself today – hence the particular perspective. I get the feeling that I am telling myself what has happened and is still happening to me since I began to paint. My view of the world and of my place in it has changed dramatically. Moreover, art has made feel somewhat proud of myself for once. Walking tall at last, maybe. Basically. Little Steven is looking up at (or to, I hope) big Steve.
One thing that is clear is that Steven has discovered or realized himself through, and in, painting. The Freudian business aside [ I think Freud is too concentrated on everything being sexual, and that’s only when he gets past anal fixations] I see escape here: not escapism, but liberation.
I lean strongly towards the idea that through art I have managed to trust my first impressions/thoughts/feelings and he is the standard bearer of this approach; the only approach that gets me as near as I can to the stars. I don’t need a head and eyes, I know they are out there. I can feel ’em.
Beauty, mystery, wonder and echoes of our childhood, the primitive are inside *us*, not just in our heads. Irrationality scares us socially, it is a must for me artistically in many moments. We have in our spontaneity, intuition, gut feeling and wildness those fabulous echoes.
As the birds are freed from the container of the body, the mind is unfettered by limiting concepts of self — especially as defined by others — and from the constraints of reason and even linguistic thought. The eruptions of the birds is the release of bottled up creative energy. The closest bird, almost threatening, is the picture of “spontaneity, intuition, gut feeling and wildness”. I counted over 300 birds, and these could represent the paintings the artist would make.
Steven’s rendering of certain details are sometimes a little vague or unpolished (hands, shoes, folds in clothing). This gives his paintings a deceptive resemblance to folk or outsider art, but other elements are very sophisticated and serve to elevate the paintings above the amateur. He repeatedly uses a picture-plane-busting device of extreme foreshortening, and the illusion of objects, including birds or the tallman’s feet, coming bursting through the canvas.
Bananas is a perfect example of these curious, and dramatic pictorial strategies. Notice the charming yellow slug on the bottom left, and that his underside is as if sliding on the inside of the picture plane. Our point of view is similar to the slugs. The rows of corn and sunflowers converge on the horizon line at the vanishing point, creating an inverse V shape. At the same time, however, the tallman’s legs create a much higher vanishing point, and second suggested horizon line. This is a peculiar distortion, because we couldn’t be both looking up at the giant, and back towards the horizon, and way down at the slug at the same time. Further, the rightmost banana has been tossed through the picture plane.
Another recurring device throughout his paintings is a convincing array of positions or poses of objects and animals. Each bird in the flock in Swift took a different pose, and the same occurs here with the configurations of bananas.
Some people will see phalluses, — that’s inevitable, — but hopefully we can muster up enough brain power to go beyond our first knee-jerk reaction. This painting is about YELLOW.
I felt I had neglected yellow over these years and decided to make up for it. Tallman acquiesced understandingly. I basically went bananas.
Tallman is flinging the gift of yellow, in a field of yellow, and the extravagant display is all for the benefit of one, lowly, admiring, yellow banana slug.
The same compositional forces are at play in Bungeeee, in which small animals plummet down towards us, getting the thrill of their lives.
In Fish Leaves, our tallman brushes the tops of trees with his fingers, changing leaves into fish. As with the other canvases, tallman’s legs make the large triangle, and the largest of the fish leaves swims through the surface of the picture plane.
Tallman’s adventures continue
There’s already one more painting in progress, and it’s coming along very nicely, though the artist reports he’s struggling to pull it off. Here’s we can see the progression, so far, in 5 stages:
We can already see that the split streams of the waterfall echo tallman’s legs, we have our flying birds, and some sort of rainbow emanating from a dog in the foreground.
The artist and his painterly, lucky doppelganger persist in making magic happen in the visual realm. When blue chip artists spend millions to employ others to make their grand spectacles for them; and contemporary art is thought to be found in the radical, conceptual, and necessarily political works of young artists, I find these warm and whimsical, hand-painted images by a self-taught, 60 year old artist more engaging and enduring.
I feel better about the world knowing tallman is roaming out there, and his gifts to birds, slugs, leaves, and sheep are really presents for the collective visual imagination.
The Complete Series of 30 Paintings
The images are in chronological order, and each painting has a caption, supplied by the artist himself, to give a a clue as to what they are about.
You can follow Steven Beercock and the tallman’s journey on IG: https://www.instagram.com/steven_beercock/
and on FB: https://www.facebook.com/stevenjbeercock/
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