Holding space with Rachel Beach

Mid Sentence's works come to life in SMU Art Gallery

Every once in a while, as I wander through Rachel Beach’s Mid- Sentence, I stop suddenly because I think I see someone just beside or near me, out of the corner of my eye. Each time, I realize with slight embarrassment that it is not another gallery goer, but one of Beach’s painted sculptures. It’s not so much that they too closely resemble the human body, as it is where this angle or that curve sit in height, in relation to a body. The walls are filled with quartets of paper-based pieces that layer materials and techniques atop each other to create sculptural images, while twelve groups of colorful, geometric wood sculptures fill the Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery like groups of friends chatting at a party. This collection of nearly a decade’s worth of Beach’s work plays with the tension between painting and sculpture, image and object, abstraction and figure in a conversational way that suggests we are in fact catching them mid-sentence.

Rachel Beach: (left to right) Pine, oil and chalk pastel on plywood, Buoy, oil and acrylic on plywood, Perch, oil and chalk pastel on plywood, 2013; Photo: Cary Whittier

The bodily sense that the sculptures evoke comes as no surprise to Beach, as she explains how she develops them. “I’m always relating them to my own body, to get them figured out. I make little tiny drawings, then I project them, and then I sort of stand by them and make them bigger, make them smaller and sort of feel where they are, redraw them so that the components land at different spots on your body,” she explains. “Because you feel differently if there’s a hole here [chest-level], or a hole at your kneecaps”.

This ever changing sense of physical relation and sensation is but one facet of Beach’s exploration of the physical and visual. Many of the sculptures grouped together mimic each other wholly or in part in shape or form, with different accumulations of colour and pattern, at once familiar and slightly disorienting. This tension is key to Beach’s exploration of what it is to experience, rather than simply observe the sculptural.

Rachel Beach, (left) Leda, oil on plywood, 46 cm x 38 cm x 2.3 m, 2014; (right) Reynard, oil and acrylic on plywood, 46 cm x 15 cm x 2.3 m, 2014. Courtesy of the artist

Rachel beach: Bloom, oil and acrylic on plywood; Echo, acrylic and chalk pastel on plywood, 2015. Photo: Steve Farmer

“I think pulling you in and out is kind of key, like pulling you out of a visual experience, or something perceptual or something strange or something more physical about material or weight and balance,” says Beach, adding that she wants to make it tough for the viewer’s eyes to “rest in one place.”

Some of the wooden forms are completely covered with paper and ink, while others of the same group and of similar shape are lightly stained; that the natural wood grain emerges from some while others appear almost plastic in their impenetrable sheen does make it difficult to “rest in one place,” as does the way light plays upon the different pieces, depending on how they are imbued with colour, where they sit in relation to other sculptures and what those sculptures are.

Realizing that these pieces were made over the course of four years lays bare the ongoing conversation in Beach’s work, giving the viewer a sense of what her process might look like. This style of presentation is one Beach feels is most honest, in that it mimics the way her works “live” and interact in her studio: “The way that I’ve always worked in my studio is I work in series, so I’ll do a grouping, but to me they’re always in conversation with the other things, and that’s the way they live in my studio: this thing next to that thing.” That these pieces “live” as they do is overwhelmingly apparent in Mid-Sentence; they exist in conversation with each other across distance and time, a living interaction, and they evoke a sense beyond the physically sculptural, beyond image, to live in relation to the viewer.


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