Two Artists and a Bunch of Bull

Thoughts on Jorge Catoni, Robert Beckmann and the Meaning of Meaning

Scott Dickensheets

I'm probably full of shit here, but bear with me. I'm never sure where I'll end up when I really get typing about art, and since I'm not a critic, just a guy who likes to look, my path is crookeder than most. First sudden turn: Because I'm a pushover for certain kinds of art—fast, otherworldly, thinky—I set out to write a modest appreciation of a kid named Jorge Catoni, based solely on my response to a painting of his hanging in a pocket gallery at Holsum Lofts. Bursting, uninhibited, worked over, it shut the place down as far as I was concerned—nothing else in the building rivaled its primitive, aggressive look, its determination to squeeze new forms into being. The antecedent who came to mind first: Basquiat, that crazy '80s energy he had. The second was better, though: Roberto Matta, the Chilean surrealist, whose style has similarites to Catoni's.

By chance, I met Catoni later that evening at MTZC Gallery, doing his best to look innocuous in the ebb and flow of a light First Friday crowd. Shy, Mick Jagger thin, with buzzed hair and happening sideburns, he was, like Matta, from Chile—been here a couple of years now. We exchanged a few awkward comments, and I figured, yeah, I'll work up some blab and scribble on the guy.

But somewhere between that moment and this, I got sidetracked by a different issue: the artist Robert Beckmann and his decision to leave town. Eventually, my thoughts on that nudged into my developing thoughts on Jorge Catoni, those thoughts nudged back, and here we all are, on another fast, otherworldly, thinky jaunt into Scott-is-full-of-shit land. I'm having fun already.

• • •

A few weeks after our first encounter, Catoni and I meet again. Wearing a greenish T-shirt and brown pants, he's fidgeting in a chair in the MTZC studio/gallery, trying his best to talk about his artwork, which he dislikes doing. MTZC is a sizable space up a flight of creaking stairs in the Commerce Street Studios, a group of galleries and mixed-cultural spaces housed in a cheery red building in a tired Downtown neighborhood, a loooong walk from the heart of the Arts District's action. With its raffish, DIY feel, this gallery is a crossroads of sorts for a group of artists who, like Catoni, are mostly young and mostly under the city's radar. "We seem to find no shortage of occasions to have artistic friends over to make art or socialize and support each other," says the artist Cybele, the C in MTZC. "We're all creative and motivated people who are determined to keep making art a priority, and whenever opportunities come up where we can help each other out, we do. We're not competitors."

Catoni and I are surrounded by the pieces in MTZC's Naked Lady exhibit; Cybele is making something at a nearby table. This is a working studio as well as a gallery, no distinction drawn—as it is in the hushed white cubes of traditional gallery culture—between production and display.

"I don't like to do it," Catoni is saying good-naturedly. "I think that is so obvious." The topic: explaining his art. He's all shy demurral; I think he's trying to turn invisible.

"I just try to see and think," he says, groping. Explanation dispels mystery and mystery is precisely what he wants his work to exude. "There is a meaning for me, but the art is so subjective. … You can explain it, Oh, that means that for me, but for you it is a different meaning."

We look closely at "Pimp Mind," his contribution to Naked Lady. Painted on a stray piece of thin board—Catoni likes to work with whatever comes to hand—it's a multi-layered profusion of biomorphic forms, doodles and chicken-scratchings, the main shapes backgrounded by a rain of dots and marks. You have to look hard for the naked lady that makes it eligible for this show … oh, there she is, lightly drawn, nearly overwhelmed by everything else going on.

The art is so subjective? OK, then, some subjectivity: "Pimp Mind" is the only piece in this show I end up caring much about. The other artists have come up with fine strategies for making distinctive images, but most settle for that. They draw from the expected low-pop sources, some have a nicely rude energy, but that's it. Only Catoni's piece seems to have what, for lack of a better grade of bullshit, I'll call an exploratory quality, to be reporting back from a new space. It also exhibits a surer grasp of the difference between mystery and enigma for its own sake, which is what pulls the plug on a lot of underground art for me.

Perhaps coincidentally, "Pimp Mind" is also the only piece I see that's been sold.

• • •

I know before I knock that no one will answer. Partly because, you know how a house can just feel empty from outside? Robert Beckmann's does. Also, he had told me he's moving out for good today, decamping for the moderate weather and welcoming arts scene in Oregon. But I'm hoping he'll still be here, making one last nostalgic shuffle-through. I picture him sweeping his eyes wistfully around the high-ceilinged living room, still seeing the art that used to cram the bare walls; maybe stepping one final time into the oversized studio ...

I'm right: No one answers.

Beckmann, alas, is probably best known around town as a muralist; that's his bighorn sheep staring down at you in the D Terminal at McCarran, his brawny take on Henderson history covering the side of the Sprint building in downtown Henderson. There are plenty more if you know where to look.

I say "alas," because, like writer William L. Fox—whose new book about Las Vegas, In the Desert of Desire, excerpts a Beckmann painting on the cover—I think that "Bob's a good muralist, but a far more interesting studio painter." The murals underwrote the fine art, such large achievements as Body of a House (a series of paintings based on frame-by-frame government footage of a house being blown apart by an above-ground atomic blast at the Nevada Test Site) and Vegas Vanitas (in which Beckmann inserted images of Las Vegas into landscapes based on works by Old Masters).

I rap on his studio door, just to be sure. No one there, either.

Standing there, I'm reminded of the group dynamic of MTZC. Beckmann used assistants and entertained visitors, but his studio had none of the gathering-point feel of a place like MTZC. Art is generally a social phenomenon on its back end—as actual art critic Dave Hickey points out, good work creates a community of like-minded admirers and thrives in a climate where people talk about it. Catoni, Cybele and the other MTZCers have simply moved that practice around to the front end, to the making of the work. Catoni talks excitedly about bringing in friends to help create his installation pieces, and while collaboration isn't new, Catoni appears to invest an unusual amount of meaning into the fluid, non-hierarchical back-and-forth that it entails, even if it means that his authority as sole creator of the artwork is diluted.

Beckmann adhered to the more traditional notion of the artist on a solo mission, trying to wrestle big chunks of meaning onto a canvas. Thinking of his studio as a Renaissance-style enterprise, he used assistants for prep work, blocking in certain masses in tints carefully selected by Beckmann. But he took it from there, and there was no question of authorship. I can't imagine him ceding a square inch of a Vegas Vanitas canvas to anyone else.

• • •

What does it mean? Artists mostly hate that question, A.) because what's really being asked is, I'm busy and don't wanna think; can you nutshell it for me?; and B.) because sometimes there isn't an answer that fits in a nutshell.

Catoni's response to that question can be found, at least in part, in an installation he's put up at Winchester Community Center. Thousands of photocopied faces, distorted, grotesque, some barely recognizable as human, adhere to the walls, bunching around a few bright red frames that are empty inside. It's a comment on the relationship between art and its audience, the way the stuff they're nominally there to see is more often just a pretext to schmooze. It's the atmosphere that prompts people to seek shortcuts to meaning.

"It is so typical," Catoni says. "You are in a show or something like that. They see your work—Oh, what does it mean? Always they ask the same, you know, and for me, the art is not that."

"Probably the most important part of Jorge's art is that he won't explain it," Cybele says. "He'll tell you how he put it together, but he won't tell you why. He wants his work to speak to each viewer in their own language. I admire him for his refusal to pander, and I aspire to follow suit and shut my own yap when people try to pry into the meanings in my own art."

Now we're standing in front of "Pimp Mind," Catoni and I. He's running a finger above a series of squares inscribed in ball-point pen. He's illustrating the way he works, and as he makes little noises simulating pen strokes—"Wsht, wsht"—it occurs to me that the question may not be what it means, but rather ... and this, by the way, is the question that eventually links it in my mind to Beckmann's work, and why I'm drawn to both ... but rather how does it mean?

Aw, jeez, I can see how that sounds more philosophical/BS than I intended it to. What I mean is: A piece like this is all about the eloquence of the moment, the logic of the eye, the momentum of the hand, in which one spontaneous act (drawing a line an eighth of an inch long) sets up another spontaneous act. (Will it be another line extending the previous one? Going at a right angle? Won't know until he does it!) And yet I don't think it's entirely improvisational, either; I think he has a headful of shapes and forms that he downloads, edits, distorts.

In that way of working, meaning can't be programmed into a piece, it just seeps in or it doesn't, and that happens on a private, nonverbal level.

I never saw an improvisational brushstroke on a Beckmann canvas. Everything was plotted with Hitchcockian exactitude, every element assigned its duties of meaning or its metaphorical weight. I remember standing with Beckman in front of "Death of the First Born," from his Vegas Vanitas series, as he explained how the quietly repeated diagonal elements firm up the painting's middle, subtly comforting the eye and cinching the image together. He once walked me canvas by canvas through Body of a House, unpacking its multiple meanings. They ranged from the obvious apocalyptic anxiety to more subtle business, like the way the house could stand in for society or the (heh-heh) nuclear family (Beckmann's work is often comic in that low-key way) or even the body. The color scheme had a meaning, too, something to do with the procession of bodily fluids from birth to death, but the main point here is that meaning wasn't left to chance. It wasn't about speaking to viewers in their own language. In Vegas Vanitas, he rubbed Vegas against nature to pose some very specific questions about the meaning of fake and real, nature and manmade—his best work can be "read" in that nearly literary way.

Beckmann clearly saw himself in conversation with art history, perhaps occasionally in contention with it. Not Catoni. "I don't feel like an artist," he admits, sounding sheepish. "I never studied art. I found it just dry. Art for me is: Just do it. You don't have to learn about famous artists."

So, you're not interested in art history? You don't see yourself reacting to it?

"I know about history, but ... [pause] ... I like to know, but for me, I don't care about that too much. Art history is the past. I like to see the future."

• • •

"Yeah, sad for sure," a mutual friend e-mailed about Beckmann's departure. "I think there's some irony about him coming here 35 years ago for something, and now leaving because that very thing ain't there anymore." By "that very thing," he meant "lack of a forum for his desired work, of a higher level of comradeship and of hope for any of that to change. Bottom line: If it ain't about power and money, there's no upside to being a big fish in a small pond in this town."

It's tempting to wonder if, had Beckmann found a grown-up version of the MTZC scene that Catoni seems so solidly anchored in, he'd still be here. (I'd ask him, but no one is home.)

"His reputation in town will rest more on the murals than on The Body of a House or Vegas Vanitas," Fox says. "Las Vegas afforded him a good living but didn't buy his major studio work, much to the loss of the town. If ever a city needed the mirror of an artist held up to its visage, it's Las Vegas."

Of course, there's only so much meaning you can heap on these dichotomies, this artist played off that artist for the sake of some high-minded BS, and here at the end, I should say what I set out to say, which is that these days, when there's so much to look at and so little worth seeing, it's a fine and rare thing to encounter an artist who gives you a jolt to the brain and the optic nerve, and sad when one leaves.

"For me," Catoni says, "art is alive, it's a piece of you out in the world. It's my expression; it has to say something."

On that, I think they'd both agree.

Jorge Catoni will be in action with other MTZC artists during Third Thursday on September 15. The "artists painting artists" event runs from 6-10 p.m. Information:

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