Postmodern Panorama

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Veil
In progress (2010-Present)
Watercolor, gouache and graphite on paper
57 1/2″ x 148″
Photo: courtesy the artist

Ask Joseph Biel what he’s working on–or even what medium he works in–and you may get a variety of answers, depending on exactly where he is at the moment. Highly skilled in the traditional techniques of painting and drawing, Biel casts a wide net in terms of his practice: since 2000, when he first moved to LA, he gained a reputation as a representational artist, as a participant in LA Louver’s “Rogue Wave 2007” group show. He’s since stepped back from painting on panel, to works on paper–and beyond; as of December, he’s been driving out to Riverside, CA, several days a week, to work on a massive site-specific wall drawing, as part of a new installation at the Sweeney Art Gallery and Culver Center, in the UCR ARTSblock. Besides the wall piece, the center will also be exhibiting a survey of Biel’s smaller works from the past decade, both of which officially open December 21, and will run through March. When that’s done, he’ll begin working toward a gallery solo show this spring in Berlin. This past summer, he did a four-hour performance art work at Raid Projects. By day, Biel also teaches art and design, as a professor at Cal State Fullerton; in October, he was invited to lecture at the Getty Institute on the use of negative space in drawing, in conjunction with an Old Masters drawing exhibition.

And yet, for someone with such a multiplicity of mediums and interests, Biel is also remarkably consistent–at least in one significant way. For the last four years, in his modest Chinatown studio, he has been working doggedly on a single project titled Veil–a giant painting/drawing spanning his studio’s longest wall, depicting 1,124 separate television sets, stacked neatly in towering columns. He is now nearly three quarters through the project: as of this writing, he has exactly 317 left to go (“I’m hoping by the time this comes out, it will be less,” he laughs). Biel started researching the project in January 2010, gleaning images that interested him, and hung the paper on the wall that fall. Working at a dizzying clip of roughly one or two a day, between his other commitments, he estimates he will finish it in late 2014, after nearly five years’ work.

The project is extremely hands-on, with each separate TV set drawn individually in graphite, and each separate image painted carefully by hand. Nearly all of them are found images, collected and transcribed from other sources. Even the TV itself is a found object: based on one that he had in his bedroom as a kid. The scenes depicted within range widely, to a dizzying degree–from iconic moments in cinema to historic artworks Biel reveres, to scenes of other cultural disciplines, such as classical music. And then, a wide array of snippets from the daily onslaught of the frenetic 21st-century mediasphere we now inhabit–scenes from TV shows or from the news, of famous and infamous figures doing their thing, as well as glimpses of steamy sex and day-to-day banality, set off by the occasional field of static, all co-existing side by side without comment or judgment. The result is a panoply of contemporary humanity, a vast postmodern landscape of our media-infused culture, with both a small “c” and a large one: a work at once sprawling but utterly focused–fragmentary in format, but epic in its scale.

While the length of the journey was not fully intentional, the goal behind it was. “I think I realized that I wasn’t that happy with the market system,” Biel recalls. “I don’t know that I fit in that well.” And so, like a novelist or filmmaker perhaps, he embraced the immersiveness that his project demanded. The result is a unique and striking practice, which clearly revels in its contradictions. Drawing from artists Biel admires, one might say that it combines the bold, rigorous understatement of a Toba Khedoori drawing, with the omnivorous wit of a Wallace Berman Verifax collage. Another artist Biel looks up to is Llyn Foulkes–both because of Foulkes’ “strange craft-slash-contemporary edge” and his individualistic stance. And also, Biel notes laughingly, “because he worked on that Lost Frontier piece for, what, eight, nine years?”

So how did he select his particular images? Seated in a quiet Chinatown cafe a block from his studio, Biel ponders the question. “The truth is, I started off with a much more restrictive list,” he begins. “And I realized what I wanted to try and do is, make a world. Not just a pop-culture world. So I started making lists of things, and I would look at the lists–I really was making lists of lists, actually–seeing how the categories would break down. And I realized, I needed things that I wasn’t going to be particularly interested in painting. Like boring landscapes. Or, you know, Shopping Channel, things that filled out the whole culture.” And how is his own taste reflected in the piece? There’s a bunch of pianists, and violinists, and classical musicians. Probably a disproportionate number for an even-handed list. Because I come from that background. And there are certain films–I’m like, yup, Brando’s got to be in there… Radiohead has to be in there. And certain art historic paintings that I hold dear are in there, too. What’s interesting is that things that might make a personal mark on their own become just a dot in the ocean. Things that are really sexual or overtly strange are just another image…”

Then the conversation veers, to James Joyce and the conceptual strategies of composer John Cage, and to other creative figures whose work has informed his thinking and his practice. And it becomes clear that this is not one of those trendy visual artworks about the challenges of creating visual artwork, but something more wide-eyed, and far-reaching: a paean to both the sublime and the ordinary, that is extraordinary in its span. Indeed, for all its purposefulness and rigor, the work also, ironically, captures a kind of ebullience at the wealth of visual experiences that our media-saturated society has to offer, which is true to Biel’s personality, as well. “I don’t want it to be cold and documentary-like,” Biel explains. “I want it to be a sort of boots-on-the-ground wider lens. Almost, I’m thinking about something like the Diary of Samuel Pepys. Something where it’s clearly one person’s viewpoint, but it’s been expanded past a sort of mainstream range. That’s really how I would put it. There’s something obsessive about it. And I think in a way the obsessiveness also possibly counteracts the potential detachment. You know?”

Biel’s own background is nearly as eclectic as his practice. Raised in Des Moines, Iowa, to a pair of transplanted New Yorkers–both classical musicians who met at Juilliard–Biel began studying art at the age of seven, with a local teacher named Jules Kirschenbaum, an idiosyncratic realist painter, who showed with Forum Gallery in New York. The process deeply affected Biel, who continued working with him through high school, then college, in what amounted to an old-style apprenticeship. After getting his MFA from the University of Michigan, he traveled around to different teaching jobs, winding up in Portland, Oregon. It was there, over the next seven or eight years, that he began working in collaboration with artist Richard Kraft in a variety of formats, including installation, mixed-media, and video–“It really busted things open for me in a wide variety of ways,” he recalls. He also met artist Hilary Hopkins, who became his wife.

In 2000, he and Hilary moved to Los Angeles, and he rebooted his individual practice. To a large degree, that meant returning to painting and drawing. Eventually he evolved what one could call his signature style: depicting somewhat eccentric, restrained tableaux of figures against an empty field, in a bluish monochrome. “There are these things
that you learn in art school that you’re supposed to want to do,” he explains wryly. “Like you’re supposed to do backgrounds, and you’re supposed to use color, if you’re a painter. And the funny thing is, I never really liked doing either all that much… I mean, I love color when, you know, Bruegel uses it, or Bonnard uses it. But I don’t really think I see things that way.”

The medium that he’s come to embrace, with Veil, is deceptively complex, using watercolor and glazing over underbases, building up his imagery to sometimes 20 or 30 layers, through the aid of an acrylic gouache. And yet, therein lies the central contradiction that most powerfully defines and informs his work: although he works in seemingly traditional representational media, with uncanny craftsmanship, the work itself aspires to a profoundly postmodern form of cultural sampling. “I suppose one of the things about the sort of traditional [approach] that I’ve always responded to, is just the idea about the handmade having an aura,” Biel reflects. “You know, the whole [Walter] Benjamin idea of the original, the authenticity of the mark of the artist, I still buy into that. But, what I don’t buy into is proscribing one way of working being higher or more valuable than another. It happens to be–let me put it this way, traditional drawing and painting is a natural extension of my thought,” he continues. “The way for some people, music is, or for some people, language is. So, I don’t choose it because I think it’s higher, I choose it because it’s chosen me.” We sip our iced coffee, and then he adds, “I really feel like, my pieces, though they’re on paper, think in collage.”

That he has chosen to devote his labor-intensive, hand-wrought skillset to depicting images from mass media, and the nostalgic vehicle of a TV set, is the work’s big irony, and perhaps its charm. Using an ostensibly warm, highbrow medium, to depict and valorize an archetypically “cool,” populist medium, he affirms the value of them both. Despite his project’s vast scale, the images he presents are fragmentary and intimate, worlds unto themselves–a postmodern kaleidoscope. “I guess… as someone who lives in these times, the fragment seems to me, the natural legacy of our time, artistically,” he suggests. “So the idea of fragmentation doesn’t seem put on for me, it’s just sort of how I see the world, it’s how my filter takes in information.”

Yet whether singular or fractured, banal or iconic, all Biel’s works share a certain theatricality, as evidenced by Biel’s dramatic new wall drawing at Riverside. Titled Sentry, the work posits two enormous bald, male figures, who Biel calls “titans.” Seen from behind, they are up to their waists in water, and chained to a pre-existing outcropping at the wall’s center. Both will be covered as by full-body tattoos, one by musical stanzas, the other by poetry: a meditation on the idea of beauty being “chained up in our contemporary culture.” It is an unusually earnest point of view for a contemporary LA artist, which one might not detect at first in Veil. But it is true to his evolving post-ironic stance. At the same time, the work also echoes Veil in its frontal format: a “really synthetic and artificial” presentation, although rendered with classical poise.

Looking past Veil, Biel’s next project will present a wall of faces displayed in a diagonal grid, like dots. Painted in color–a change for him–the work presents images of actual masks, in kind of an ethnographic and pop cultural cross-section. It is titled Census. He started out wanting to do it as portraits, but over time, the piece evolved. “I guess the thing that really links it to the TV piece, and to the performances actually, is the idea of a cultural collection. And the specific idea that collecting can be as expressive an act as the personal mark in an abstract expressionist way. In a way, you’re curating. You know, the idea that curating is an expressive act, which is something that I do believe… So I think in a way, collecting has replaced the figure for me, as a way to talk about personal concerns.”

For now, while he is heading into the final lap of his artistic marathon, and pursuing his diverse other projects, he is also wading gently back into the art market, working on a series of smaller works on paper, and getting some of them out into the world. Depicting little stacks of one, two or three TVs, these works are unabashedly intimate and meditative. And as such, oddly moving. “Those to me, are little poems,” Biel says. “Those images are really chosen to create a sort of poetic collage, or a set of associations.” He pauses. “I shouldn’t say even ‘chosen’ because they’re often irrational,” he adds cheerfully. “I don’t understand them always.”