Lou Beach – Citizen LA (September 2009)
An LA Original
Upon entering illustrator Lou Beach’ studio- who insists that he isn’t an artist and would have preferred to be a writer or a piano player- I can’t help but take pause after seeing a large dictionary opened on a stand beneath the window. The page is opened to the word “make” and with two large bird feathers delicately crossed over each other; an “x” literally marks the spot. A large beetle with decaying amber wings- it is unknown whether or not the bug is real but this writer would assume the former- rests in the crease of the book, as if to ready to strike its prey beyond the window frame. On the opposite page is a small, antiquated frame that houses a painting of a benevolent monk appropriately balding on top of his scalp, clutching fresh lilies to his chest. The bookcase looks as though it will burst at the seems- all of the books are different sizes, have unusual color dust jackets, and are of varying topics. A handmade knick-knack with long bolts for arms and second hand rusting wheels for legs stares back at me with a look of pure surprise. Next to it is a magic plastic bird with an elongated beak that allows it to balance at the tip of your finger. Small skeletons of unidentified creatures are positioned on subsequent shelves, while a bear head that is mounted on the wall looks fierce despite the fact that it’s now stuffed. All of the beautifully strange objects that fill Beach’s studio are like small scraps of a collage that collectively tell a bigger story.
Beach first began working with collage in the sixties. With no formal art training, the only art class he took was in high school. He recalls making “blue polar bears and green hands and the teacher didn’t like it.” Once he came out to LA Beach found himself sitting around with his girlfriend and looking through old magazines. “I would make things and I started making collages after looking at a lot of art books. I had never studied art and our home environment (which had a wood reproduction of Madonna and Child) wasn’t particularly full of art. I discovered the Surrealists, Max Ernst, Joseph Cornell, John Heartfield, and all those of guys on my own.”
Since his career began in the 1970’s Beach has created album covers for the Carpenters, the Yellow Jackets, the Police, Blink 182, and Weird Al’ Yankovic. His editorial work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wired Magazine, Time and the New Yorker. Beach is more like a writer than any artist I have ever met. He is accustomed to editorial deadlines with a short turn around time- which he prefers. “When I was doing a column that appeared every week or every two in the New York Times Magazine I wouldn’t get the manuscript until two days before, sometimes the night before, or sometimes it wasn’t even written yet they just had the germ of an idea. It’s kind of dysfunctional. Dysfunctional people work well in those situations. Give me a month and I’ll let it go to the night before anyway,” he says with a boyish smile.
An “L” shaped wall of wood cabinets line the studio, concealing boxes that have been painstakingly organized containing items found at swap meets, vintage paper good shows, and eBay. Beach admits however that he has “tons of stuff that isn’t categorize-able, it’s just ephemera.” Those images however that don’t have a place often result in many great surprises. “That’s a great part of the appeal of making collages is the chance and the juxtaposition and sometimes a paper will slide out as I’m looking for something and will fall on the page and it’s like ‘wow! I would have never have thought about cutting it out that way or using it all but there it is,” he explains. He continues to tell me that “so often times there’s a chance rather than luck. It makes it fun. And also you go for imagery that says something to you and you put it together in a way that says something about you. So there is a learning about yourself in a way that becomes very clear.”
With editorial work ranging in topics of American consumerism characterized by a sea of shopping carts waving American flags bobbing in murky green water, to Uncle Sam dressed in the garb of a Confederate soldier drawing a pistol aimed at a complacent man wearing a giant sombrero, a pocket protector and clutching a laptop, Beach’s work draw on Americana, pop culture and everything in between. Although his works may need to conform to the narrative of the piece it accompanies, Beach’s quick wit never fails to enter his into his compositions. “It’s not always appropriate for the story ofcourse, but when it is it’s delightful to be able to get a chuckle out of somebody from a picture.”
Cut it Out published by La Luz de Jesus Press in 2005 is a collection of Beach’s editorial work, music covers, celebrity renderings and black and white images. Beach crosses his arms revealing a small black tattoo of a bird perched on a branch with scissors in place of its head. This is just one of the standard illustration tricks that Beach told me about earlier where objects are used to replace a person’s head. The same image also lines the pages of Cut it Up and shows just how personal Beach considers his work to be. Beach’s group show at Billy Shire Gallery with fellow graphic artists Jayme Odgers, Hudson Marquez, and Mel Weiner recently closed on August 1, but Beach is planning for an upcoming show in December at Four Walls Gallery in Dallas, Texas with his daughter Alpha Lubicz who also does collage. Next year Beach plans on showing with Alpha and his son Sam at Nickelodeon in Burbank, where his wife, photographer Issa Sharp already had a show for her work. With a sparkle in his eye at the thought of presenting his work in the same room as his children Beach remarks the show will be “a funny pile of scrap on the wall.”
As evidence by the work in Beach’s studio and the recent works displayed in Billy Shire’s gallery only a few weeks ago, his practice is at once radically simple and deeply intuitive. Although he uses a computer based illustration program for some of his projects, Beach explained that the show at Billy Shire “got me back into what I love doing which is cutting up.”