Artist Robert Beckmann takes us to the car wash

Robert Beckmann at Downtown Contemporary

When we last experienced water as metaphor in artist Robert Beckmann’s paintings, it was through his "Under Water" series, a sobering and thoughtful look at what the city had brought upon itself. Between his portraits of nearby St. Thomas (a town buried underwater to create Lake Mead) and the unfinished Fontainebleau Las Vegas, rendered with water creeping up to its gloomy shore, there was a sense of being submerged and strangled.

But in Car Wash! at Downtown Contemporary, something entirely different is happening. Beckmann pulls us upward into endless blue skies, with welcoming sunlight on the other side of a watery surface. Literally and metaphorically, Car Wash! represents a rejuvinating process—a double message, as is often the case with Beckmann’s work and the stories behind it.

Refreshing, joyous and almost lyrical, the four pieces in the series are presented sequentially, beginning with what at first seems an abstract painting. But like the others—all taken while riding through a car wash—it’s a representational rendering of the scenery viewed from the comfort of the car. The water is energizing. It’s in motion. It quenches, cools (lots of blues) and amuses in magnificent and dramatic, large-scale (4-by-5-foot) oil-on-canvas paintings. In the fourth painting, you’re emerging from the wash, cleaned, crisp and with the watery surface disappearing.

The photographs for the exhibit were taken about 10 years ago, says Beckmann, who began photographing the subject at a car wash in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood. “I’ve been doing that for years,” he says.

“You’re dealing with a plane of glass that you’re looking at and looking through. And like the plastic arts, it’s two-dimensional with three-dimensional behind it.”

Like "Under Water," Beckmann merges the literal and figurative. As someone who looks at water from a variety of perspectives—from the Las Vegas Wash to Heraclitus (“No man ever steps in the same river twice”)—Beckmann has no problem adding in this simple reality: “The car wash is sort of a relaxing, healing thing.”

Hanging opposite the paintings are three of Beckmann’s abstract works, also dealing with water, including a vibrant blue-and-white painting of monads and watery streams of paint, titled “Ice,” and “River Run,” a similarly styled Taoist-inspired piece in browns and grays.

Car Wash! through December, 4; Tuesday and Wednesday, 2-6 p.m.; Thursday and Friday, noon-7 p.m.; Saturday, 2-6 p.m. Downtown Contemporary in ArtSquare, 1025 First St., 358-7022.

Photo of Kristen Peterson

Kristen Peterson

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