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Man’s Fate in Doubt:

Tom Hibbard reviews
collages by Guy R. Beining

Several Steps From The Rope, Xtant Anabasis, Virginia/Washington, 2002. 34 pp
The Compact Duchamp Amp After Amp, Chapultepec Press, Cincinnati, Ohio, 2003. 74 pp

This piece is 1,600 words of about five printed pages long.

Some books are memorable. They highlight an idea that you think is important, that you don’t want to let pass without comment. One of those books is a small paper-covered collection of collages called Several Steps From the Rope, published in 2002 by Xtant Press in Virginia. Part of what troubles in failing to say something about the book is its author, Guy R. Beining. I’ve been acquainted with Beining’s work since the 1980s as it appeared in early collage zines such as ‘PhotoStatic’, ‘Raunch-O-Rama’, ‘Atticus’ and ‘Mallife’. Beining’s work always seemed to be some of the best.

Beining collage In 2003 Beining published a similar, subsequent collection of collages, from Chapultepec Press in Cincinnati, titled Compact Duchamp Amp After Amp, a ‘portable’ version of a large scale work. I know from corresponding with him that Beining has not ventured much into the cyber world. His collages retain the flavor of ‘Xerolage’, Mail Art and Quick Print copy machines.

But his work can be found online, including a portfolio of seven color works viewable at He is active as an artist, poet and collage maker, has been an artist-in-residence, had many poems published and a number of one and two person art shows. This more recent publication, an attractive, glossy-covered-with-deep-peanut perfect-bound paperback, provides opportunity to revisit the earlier work.

The reason the work of the first book persists I think is its tough-mindedness of the sort described by its tough-minded title. There is not a lot of what is current in Beining’s work, manna, familiar approaches or styles of criticism. He doesn’t lean on anything, on excited predeterminations, any well-known terms. His message is the message as it slowly presents itself. This is not at all times a virtue. Usually popular art movements or cultural phenomena are worth looking into, especially if you separate the actual value from the exaggerated fashionable value. Abstract Expressionism might be objectionable as a fad, but as a considered art form it has much in it.

Being ‘several steps from the rope’ is an exciting place to be because that’s where you find content, which amounts to finding yourself. It’s always your own rustic version that is substantive. The quality of Beining’s work is original, but what does that mean? Originality isn’t merely flashy or neatly formulated or brilliant. Rather it is unusual, surprising in assuming the uncapricious, stooped shape of truth, which is why it’s memorable. Being several steps from the rope is locating yourself in a region where things of value lie on the ground for the taking. It’s an area uncoveted, undiscovered, a terrain apart from covetousness, that you can inhabit without argument or haste.

An element of the ineradicable originality of this book is, I would have to say, in its stern critical attitude toward America. Disdaining the apprehension and accusations that swirl in off the political waters, the social niceties of moral and economic good standing, it conjures up a disgusted view of U.S culture as the picked-over scrap pile that it has become, a flailing of plastic wings, a housing development in the clouds, a desecrating infantilism going up next door, a tremor of half-witted bandwagons: ‘What a beautiful place, let’s build a shopping center’.

Beining collage
They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Let me emphasize that I do not make these criticisms as one disloyal to the U.S. I was a boy scout and cub scout before that and had my picture in the local paper to prove it. It’s my loyalty that makes me protest. I feel I am only describing what is actually the case, without being bullied. The nation has seen itself as heroic. Well and good. I am not throwing in the towel on that. I give us high marks in the category of democratic values.

But isn’t it a matter of fact that we the people are accommodating too much what has become the extortion of renown, that society is presuming to take advantage of our sacrifice, has become bizarre, crooked, a one-way desert wind where every good deed is immediately negated by a foul antithesis? ‘...A haunt of every foul and hateful bird’. Doesn’t anyone watch the nightly news? What about this self-exalting gas peddling racket for starters?

The collages in Several Steps... are an ashen chaos. They mix unrecognizable materials that have no worth, that are a substandard substitution for the real thing. Hands, barrels, geometric patterns, texts (silent), eyeballs, arrows, building materials beyond incomprehensibility are a muddied disassociational ruin. Black men hold their heads in anguish. Colorless Brillo boxes shine like moons through a nightmarish out-of-control web of mechanical interweaving. All-consuming fires burn alien surfaces. Faces are drawn on and scratched, disfigured, marred. Dead people lie unburied, decomposing; dead people die of sicknesses, with frightening symptoms, astonishingly unbelievable discoloration around the eyes, lips of sickness. The rigid aesthetics, the denied compositions make no sense, do not combine in any significant way, do not at last become a new consciousness, a clumsy transformational beauty.

Let me assert here that this is not an unusual view. In fact, in some forms, it is more and more common. It is for instance the suburban view, that causes people gladly to drive ninety miles to and from work every day because it would be unfeasible to dwell any nearer the edge of the abyss, because quality of life is overrun by crimes that have no source and no end.

As Beining points out, ‘normality’ in these collages is an effect, an effort to reassure. Pointing toward is pointing away. Order is in context of the chaos. These collages are not a mangled image but an inhuman cover-up. Of Francis Bacon’s neo-expressionist art Donald Kuspit writes,

In hysteria a person attempts to immortalize him- or herself by becoming extravagantly demonstrative, exhibitionistic, in effect announcing his or her being as absolute and indisputable. It is given a surplus of presence.

The collages of Beining seem similarly hectic and hysterical. They have not hint of ‘an obscure self that is forgotten underneath’.

The most striking theme of Beining’s work is the way in which this chaotic nothingness affects human beings. Except for an occasional dismembered snake-like paper shape allowed to live or an amputated body part, the only humans populating these rewardless grief-scapes are pornographic female figures. Clipped from skin mags, they are degraded, ugly, servile, murdered, half-dressed in strangely uniform attire, ego-crazed, cut-off from themselves, self-stimulating, treacherous, unable to reach sexiness or any degree of sensitive allure, unable to withhold generosity, repugnant and in the end unheroic and ignoble. They are the disenfranchised powerless prostitute-angels of cosmopolitan squalor. They are everyone. Some look like people I know, highlighted, plopped down exhausted in their tracks, their only defense self-exposure. Perhaps I can find myself among them. Even religion is expelled and blinded.

Harry Polkinhorn also finds these qualities in Beining’s work. In a comprehensive review, Polkinhorn makes note of Beining’s move away from writing to collage. Writes Polkinhorn:

This awareness, as I have tried to show, has led the artist in a series of graphic steps away from language to the negative spaces of the page and eventually into non-verbal imageries.

Polkinhorn also finds in these collages ‘the sterner realities of a crumbling and disappearing order of representation’.

Machine parts, human figures both dressed and nude, line-drawing designs, areas of texture, and sculpture fragments coalesce and swirl across the surface. The art remains figural but for the purpose of emphasizing fragmentation, dissolution, explosion, violent confrontation of the human body as a desiring machine at war with the inorganic order of things of which it is now but a subsidiary function. These elements (and other, similar ones) can be seen in the many collages....

Perhaps the newer collection is more optimistic. The naming of Duchamp makes reference to a famous, early quasi-abstract painting, Nude Descending a Staircase No 2, 1912. Artists and writers seem to me attracted to Duchamp because of his innovative yet serene character, indifferent to distortions of hometown, success, patriotism. Beining’s nudes ascend a staircase, the savage divisive hierarchical staircase that distorts values into absences of themselves. In the heatedness of its critique, the newer book seems to have become directed, as with some aim in mind, rather than based in the hopelessness of the earlier book. I too noted the lack of graspable words in the collages. But this is much less true of the later works than the earlier. Perhaps, after all, Duchamp symbolizes indifference even to destruction.

Nude Descending a Staircase is a work influenced by science. First exhibited in the February 1913 Armory show, it demonstrates time’s intertwined presence. I must say that often Beining’s collages seem to transcend their iconoclasm and capture the strange nature of a modern conception of creation. They begin to appear like pictures of ‘singularities’, in which the laws of nature are suspended. They seem similar to what is supposed to be taking place inside black holes where heads would be instantaneously ripped off of torsos, where people would be sucked in in such a way that the only recovery would be via the other side of its own inconceivability. Perhaps U.S. culture has collapsed into a black hole.

But hopelessness is no joke. These collages concern Man’s Fate, the outcome of the experiment of his and her, ‘our’ or is it ‘their’ life on earth. This is an enormous undertaking. Much is called for. Beining’s images are as accurate as photographs of bloodied bodies of Iraq, the West Bank or wherever. Those that insist on cheeriness are hiding their despair. Like no other, Beining uncompromisingly demonstrates that, apparently once again, the saving outcome is seriously in doubt.

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