It is said that good writers borrow and great writers steal. In the belief that the same is true for newspapers, this week the Press begins a new feature modeled after New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman's conversations with artists, recently collected in a book titled Portraits: Talking with Artists at the Met, the Modern, the Louvre and Elsewhere. One reason to do this is, we admit, it's copy we don't have to write ourselves. But there are better ones: It expands the number of perspectives on art in the paper and provides a way to look at art that is ignored by the critical media for the simple reason that it's always on view. Perhaps most significant, it gives us insight into the way living artists think and work.
For our first Color Commentary, we asked Beth Secor, known almost as much for the convoluted, funny dreams and memories she often relates as for her narrative paintings, to choose any work at any museum. Initially she muttered something about the Surrealists, but when it came time for the interview she walked straight to the Menil Collection's antiquities galleries and headed for an Egyptian wooden carving of a man, dated 2345 to 2181 B.C. Beth's newest body of work consists of portraits based on deceased family members, with titles such as Jessie, Taken Down in Her Youth, A Victim of Consumption, and A Potato Famine Caused Many to Perish, Some Needlessly, Haven Been Written Off as Non-Persons, so it made a certain amount of sense that she would call upon a culture obsessed with death and funerary items.
"For some reason when I was imagining it at home, it was different," Beth said of the sculpture. "I picked it because it's old, and there are basic human qualities that are desirable, and have been for a long time, at least in my mind, and one of them is dignity. And whoever portrayed this person portrayed this person with dignity, and I don't know if he portrayed him with dignity because he had to do it, or because he respected this person, or because a human essentially is endowed with dignity and this is meant to go into the afterlife. There's something about the human soul that no matter what people do, it's enduring and wonderful. This piece really moves me because of all its intentions, or implied intentions, about what it could be about. I'm drawn to it because when I do my own work, it's like an act of prayer, and when this person made this, it was like an act of prayer."
Would Beth have always been drawn to a work like this, her interviewer wondered, or was it an appreciation developed over time? "The earliest experience I can think of that has anything to do with this -- I was really religious when I was little, but not like the kind of religion I was brought up with. And there was an old gas pump, from the '20s, on a dead-end street back behind where our street was, and I opened it up one day, and there was a bird's nest, an egg and a skeleton of a bird. And I thought it had religious significance, and I would go there and pray every day."
Next, Beth headed for a grinning winged lion, a stylized stone carving from Italy in 500 B.C. "This one I like for the same reason but a different reason. This one I like because it's silly. There's basic human characteristics, and one is that you want to present yourself with human dignity mixed with silliness.
"I brought this group of kids here one time, and this kid wrote this poem called This Lion is a Flying Lion:
'This lion flies to Louisiana, Memphis
This lion flies to Georgia
This lion flies to Jesus and God
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This lion's going to get you.'
"I just like this because, well, I think it's like another reflection of my personality; it's like it's completely silly and sort of ridiculous, but it's still -- not that I am -- but it's still beautiful. I want to pet it. I want to have it in my house, and I wish it were alive. It might be annoying after a while. But you couldn't really take it on a walk; it doesn't have any legs."
Because Beth's narrative paintings are based on family events (one is titled The Miracle of the Girl Who Got Bitten in the Neck by a Dog and Lived to Be My Mother), it seemed natural to ask her if these works had, for her, some connection to memory. "It might be like an atavistic memory or some kind of archetypal memory," she said. "They're about the past; that's the most obvious thing. But also the work that I use as my direct influences are older paintings -- even though these are a lot older than what I draw from -- but like Giotto, or Renaissance paintings, because that adds a different layer. When I do my paintings, they're about my memory, but then they become about another memory, and then another, deeper memory that goes back in the tradition of painting. Mythological, that's it exactly. I have this loose theory about myth, that myths are really stories. Things that happen, and that people tell over and over again, and when they tell them they leave out what's boring."
New paintings by Beth Secor will be on display through January 4 at Inman Gallery, 1114 Barkdull, (713)529-9676.