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Limits, set to be transcended (1994)

Dagmar Groß, Redakteurin

Martin R. Becker – Acrylic Paintings

Black and White

Beginning and end, light and shadow, black and white: these are the opposites the Krefeld artist Martin R. Becker has been preoccupied with for more than 20 years now. Yet this only seems to be selfrestrictive, as the painter, born near Saarbrücken in 1949, points out. Probing such limits, analysing the area full of contrastive tension held in such extremes, sounding out the wide range of different shades of black, grey and white opens up an incredible depth within this narrow scope. Using different techniques, the former arts teacher has been striving to get down to the bottom of this deep well.

All other colours seem too descriptive and too laden with symbolism to Becker. >The world itself is so steeped in colours – art could do worse than concentrate on clear-cut lines<, he says. Yet there is symbolism in black and white. Both colours do evoke certain associations in viewers. Even though these aspects may not be essential to the understanding of Becker’s work they still might lead us to a deeper understanding of his central subject: >limits< .

Scientifically speaking, black and white are independent values which stand for themselves, in this respect not unlike primary colours. At the same time they mark the limits, beginning and end of the colour range. Black is the absence of all primary colours, the lack of light whereas white is a mixture of all primary colours. Thus both black and white partake of the absolute, they signify something perfect, the sum total of all possibilities: white as encompassing the whole spectrum und thus being absolutely perfect, black marking an absolute beginning opening up to new ideas. Philosophically speaking, black and white correspond to the idea of absolute innocence and of absolute knowledge respectively. the one being the paradisiacal state we lost in the Fall brought about by the pursuit of knowledge; the other being the condition humanity is striving for in a new approach to paradise. Chinese philosophy has black as the female principle, >Yin<, with its connotations darkness, earth, water, passivity, whereas white symbolises the male principle, >Yang<, the connotations being light, heaven, air, activity. The two principles are interdependent and interactive, which is stressed by the circular symbol divided by an S-shaped line. Thus the issue of limits and what they contain is also reflected in the symbolism inherent to the two colours.

As with his choice of colours Becker also goes back to the roots when deciding on the artistic form of his work. Deliberately he restricts himself by concentrating on the pencil-line, on a single stroke of the brush, the line being the basis of expression in traditional drawing and painting. At the same time every single line both joins and separates, it marks a transition, an end, the boundaries of an area or a space. There would be no progress or development in art or science though, if they accepted those limits without even questioning them. For Martin R. Becker they have become the central subject of his oeuvre. He takes a very close look at what happens at those limits, in those areas of transition. In his view the line becomes an isolated object which is lifted out of the solid mass it is part of. As if looking through a magnifying glass or a microscope, the single line suddenly develops a life of its own, it twists and spreads and frays, it pushes right into the space it was originally supposed to delimit and define. What – seen from a distance – appears to be a clear-cut line of grey, seen through the artist’s eye turns out to be a powerful and dynamic play of different shades of light.

Even if Becker’s approach to his subject is an analytical one, the result is anything but matter-of-fact or austere. The labyrinth of lines Becker discovers in every single stroke of the brush, the varieties of grey – they all add a touch of anarchy and chaos to his work. This impression is intensified by his deliberate manipulation of his pictures. The eraser he brings to bear on his work in pencil and crayon, the spatula he draws across those layers of fresh acrylic paint – both leave conspicuous traces, blur and blend the colours producing new mixtures and fade-overs, an interplay of still further shades of grey. They become the foundation of this many-faceted and dynamic interaction of light and shadow so characteristic of the artist’s work.

This is how Becker permanently discovers new relationships, contrasts and analogies within his self-determined limits. In the eighties Becker’s interference went so far as to tear or cut drawings into pieces, only to rearrange single elements in order to form a new picture. In this way, existing limits are dissolved, new spaces staked out and new limits and frames created. with a remarkable conceptual consistency Becker has transferred this interest in movements and contrasts, this play of lines and shadows, to other artistic media and materials: spontaneous gestural works of Indian ink broadly applied with a brush (not a pen); prints off a wooden plate – engraved with a metal rod – that faintly remind of woodcuts; movable wall-objects made of small aluminium tubes suspended by nylon threads; and also experimental visualiations by computer and on film. Whatever his media, dynamic movement and the contrast of black and white are always at the centre of the artist’s concern.

Yet the chaos that is to be found in Becker’s oeuvre has nothing irritating about it. It is disquieting but not sinister. The playfulness and the creativity of Becker’s visions prevail. If we allow ourselves to be invited by the artist’s creative impetus we may cross the borders of reality into the realm of phantasy and imagination. Symbols may give us some orientation there. But we must not look for definite answers from Becker himself.

The paintings

Three distinct phases can be traced in Becker’s acrylic paintings on canvas: First, those pictures that concentrate on a single line, then there are those that – owing to the horizontal arrangement – are reminiscent of abstract landscapes and thirdly those all-over-paintings which almost completely cover the white ground of the support.

Just as with his drawings the artist starts off with a single line. But there is a lot more to it in Becker’s paintings. As if looking at this regular straight line – that is traditionally regarded as a means to delimit a certain space – through a magnifying glass Becker traces it as a living microcosm. What seemed to us a clear-cut line takes over the space, stretches out, becomes irregular in size and colour with shades ranging from black to a very light grey. In Becker’s view this unspectacular single line becomes >individual< carrying a powerful expressiveness and the ability to interact with the space that surrounds it.

Made up of a multitude of lines and strokes, which seem to be drifting in all kinds of directions, every single line turns into a cluster of energy. The clearly visible traces left by brush and spatula reinforce this impression of movement and depth, as does the white ground.

Moving on to the second phase, different shades of black and grey step by step take over Becker’s canvases. From close observation of the single line he develops a chaotic cluster of strokes that pushes the white background to one side. It is not only due to the horizontal arrangement that these pictures remind the viewer of landscapes. The combination of dynamic, dark and opaque or light and luminous areas tends to evoke impressions of a quiet lake or a stormridden sea, a roughedged mountainrange or a gentle slope, of windswept grass and reeds. Questioned on this, Becker does accept these associations but he will not be tied down to them.

Reference to reality is not Becker’s main objective. Rather he strives to express the play of powers in the opposing movements of his dynamic and powerful strokes of the brush and the changing structure of the painting’s surface. This play of powers creates new artistic forms and fadeovers, dissolves or at least breaks up existing structures. It opens up fresh possibilities of combinations. Becker is always looking for new contexts and relationships, trying to make them accessible to us. He transcends limits, dissolves them, thus opening up new spaces and new dimensions of thinking. The very fact that his paintings are left unframed reflects this idea. These powers and movements go well beyond the limits of the painting and should be developed further in our minds.
The latest phase in Becker’s work is characterized by his recent all-over-paintings, paintings that completely cover the canvas or allow very little of the support to be perceived. Becker presents us with a jungle of long gestural and dynamic strokes in different shades of grey. Not unlike the second phase there still is a hint of lush vegetation. The interaction of several layers of paint and the different schades of light intensify the impression of depth. But even the fierce and chaotic pictures have a certain poetic quality and a sense of peacefulness about them.

Martin R. Becker’s paintings are a challenge to the creative mind, they invite us to explore and feel them, to take our thoughts beyond the limits of the picture, well beyond our own range of every day experience. Becker’s oeuvre serves as a touchstone for our own way of dealing with anything that may seem strange and unfamiliar to us.

September 1994