Grandfathers are perhaps best known for passing along advice, tall tales and the blueprints for their grandson’s hairlines, but Beck’s paternal grandfather appears to have added to that mix an abiding love for creating art from society’s rubbish heap.
Visual artist Al Hansen has been curiously omitted or glossed over in biographies and critical evaluations of his grandson. But a fascinating exhibition at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, “Beck and Al Hansen: Playing With Matches,” (on view until July 5th) should go a long way toward putting the elder Hansen’s influence on his more famous relation into perspective.
Hansen was a central part of the Sixties avant garde Fluxus school, and a series of photos of him with Andy Warhol, John and
Yoko, and John Cage attest to the respect he was accorded in that scene. While those photos (and a collection of videos documenting Hansen’s part in Fluxus) are fascinating, it’s Hansen’s art, and its connections to Beck’s work, that are most interesting.
Hansen worked in the collage form, primarily using society’s detritus — what some would call garbage. In a poem written in memory of his grandfather, who died in 1985, Beck calls him a “janitor’s vandal.” Hansen took cigarette butts, broken 45s, Hershey bar wrappers, matches, torn pages of newspapers and pornographic magazines and assembled them into soulful figures of women (echoing early African sculptures), maps and abstractions, wittily cutting up the candy wrappers to spell the words “her,” “she,” “shy” and “no.” It doesn’t take too great a leap to connect this to Beck’s melding of disparate musical forms and obscure, densely layered samples.
Beck spent a number of teenage summers with his grandfather, and started keeping a book of his collages, a few which appear in the show (one ended up in Odelay‘s CD booklet). But it’s Hansen’s “Intermedia Poems” that appear to have made the most direct impression on Beck. These works consist of cut-out newspaper headlines arranged on a page in the form of a poem. Their surreal, loosely associative string of images — “Pitfalls in the promised land/Robbers plunder the night train/English cloud received with silver lining/Cash bottlenecks pinch profits” — could easily be mistaken for one of Beck’s lyrics.
The Fluxus concept of “art happenings” also seems to have rubbed off on Beck: Last Thursday, to kick off “Playing With Matches,” Beck performed what was announced as a performance piece, “New Age Evisceration, (Part 1).”
Prior to the performance, Beck called the piece “a combination of Yanni and Tony Robbins … it will be the longest twenty minutes of your life.” But the sly “Evisceration” showed his ability to perfectly absorb just about any style then rework and reshape it to his own ends.
Staged in a garage (complete with basketball hoop over the door), Beck and his band played at being the most pretentious garage band in history. The music — long, portentous sustained chords and noodling arpeggios, with the occasional chime trills — was performed deadpan by Beck, keyboardist Roger Manning and bassist Justin Warfield, who sported a Noel Redding-afro fright wig.
They shared the stage with a giant computer, complete with an unfinished, nonsense algebraic equation on the screen while Beck, his voice artificially deepened, intoned gloriously goofy inanities such as “this is the eruption of your inner teenager” and “imagine naked dolphins … imagine dolphins, naked, fucking a computer.” During the latter, someone in a dolphin suit complete with a large, erect penis, danced to center stage and … well, fucked the computer.
This was met with hysterical laughter by some and puzzled looks by most of the 700 art patrons in attendance. Beck finished off the piece by taking a buzz saw to his synthesizer, attempting to cut it in half. He barely made a dent in it, only knocking it off its stand and breaking the keys, but still, he held the silenced instrument triumphantly over his head like an addled Trent Reznor. New Age Evisceration, indeed.