“Perpetual Wound”

On Jeffrey Beebe at BravinLee Progams

Writing of Arthur Rimbaud, the critic Graham Robb noted that “aesthetic pleasure can often be derived from a mere impression of complex thought.” Robb’s observation has served me as a durable statement of general value and one that proves especially illuminating when considering the work of an artist like the brilliant, highly idiosyncratic Jeffrey Beebe, whose exhibit “Red Soil Boys: The Tyranny of Manifest Fairnesses” runs at BravinLee Programs, in Chelsea, through the end of the week.

“The District Vermilion,” detail; ink and watercolor on paper. Photo by Amy Wilson.

Beebe’s vision is singular, deeply imaginative, melancholy, and soaked in violence and myth. The “Red Soil Boys” of his exhibit’s title are an imaginary cadre of Indiana vigilantes, existing in a kind of sepia-toned indeterminate past, who wage constant war upon a persecuted aboriginal population led by a tribe of sage-beasts called the Uncles. The centerpiece of the BravinLee exhibit is a series of immense, beautiful, and insanely detailed panels — maps, diagrams, medieval bestiaries — outlining the elements of this imaginary war with kaleidoscopic detail and verve. The effect is so overwhelming as to yield only a series, perhaps, of scattered observations:

Beebe has said explicitly that his sensibility is derived from, among other things, his fascination with the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons during his youth, and the paintings evoke that mysterious, near-mystical desire for an otherworldly realm that characterized D&D’s mental universe;

“Curvey Belma” (detail), from “Uncles Exterminated During the Tyranny,” ink and watercolor on paper. Courtesy of BravinLee Programs.

The “Red Soil Boys,” in Beebe’s schema, combine elements of retrograde American sexism and homophobia, Confederate apologists, Philip Guston’s joy-riding Ku Klux Klanners, and drunk racist uncles everywhere. They make home-made intoxicants, belong to Shriner-like organizations with sinister regalia, kill wildlife just for the hell of it, and believe that women belong exclusively in the domestic sphere. The immediate topical relevance of this is so obvious as to need no further elaboration;

In addition to fantasy role-playing, Beebe’s work summons echoes of Henry Darger, with his delicate, bloodthirsty Vivian Girls, the Codex Seraphinium, with its hallucinatory catalogue of imaginary items, and Matthew Brady, whose photographs provided the visual armature for a series of elegiac portraits of Uncle deaths. I also see Civil War-era daguerrotypes, Tolkien’s hand-drawn maps for The Hobbit, frontier maps detailing Indian massacres and the like, even a hint of Escher’s scrambled architectural magic.

All of these motifs and themes are executed in a panoramic sweep of eye-blinkingly minute ink cross-hatchings and delicate watercolor washes, giving the paintings a gem-like clarity that dazzles mind and eye, and that sticks in the memory like a vision of a dream… or maybe a nightmare.

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