“These paintings are so raw; they’re so far from anything I’ve ever done before,” said Lisa Beane about her show “Chapters,” now on view at The Jefferson School African American Cultural Heritage Center through March 30.
Beane is a Los Angeles-based artist. But for many years she lived in Charlottesville, while raising her daughter Leslie Goldman and painting at a level that garnered shows at Les Yeux du Monde and Second Street Gallery.
In 2004, Beane met LeRoi Moore, the saxophonist for the Dave Matthews Band, while walking on the Downtown Mall in a chance coup de foudre encounter. True soul mates, the two were planning to marry in November 2008.
Moore died tragically three months before the wedding from pneumonia contracted as a result of injuries sustained in an ATV accident the previous June. Following his death, Beane was plunged into a tailspin of grief and turmoil as arguments over Moore’s estate and recriminations about her role in his life and death escalated.
To escape the chaos and pain, Beane decamped to Los Angeles where she and Moore had a home and had planned to live for part of the year. There followed five years of survival as she worked through this personal catastrophe, the legacy of which was a PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) diagnosis.
Last spring, a friend learned that Beane was an artist (she’d virtually stopped painting since Moore’s death) and upon seeing her work, insisted she go to his ranch in Nebraska and paint. Bean said she felt Moore speaking through him, “And so, I said, ‘O.K.’ It was time.” And then, “in a kind of a trance,” she posted a comment about it on Facebook that was seen by Andrea Douglas, executive director of the Jefferson School. When Douglas learned that Beane was back in the game, she immediately offered her a show.
Alone on the 650-acre ranch for six weeks “in the middle of nowhere,” her only companions a Mexican ranch-hand who spoke very little English, cattle and rabbits, Beane was forced to confront what had happened to her. Working through five years in six weeks was “the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” said Beane. “I had to see it all, go through it again, and it came out in the paintings. And they’re intense and vulgar and they’re not just what I went through with Roi. They’re about life, about humanity. About how we treat one another, how we can be so cruel to one another, whether it’s family, or George Zimmerman, or politicians, or Wall Street.”
The theme of loss is front and center, but the message of the show is one of forgiveness and survival. “After Roi passed away and I had to deal with not only losing him, but losing everything else: my dogs, my home, sentimental things like wedding gifts, presents he bought me for my birthday. Things that meant something. I had to figure out where to put all that loss. I had to find my way back to love and forgiveness. I knew if I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t honor Roi.”
And honor him she has with a kick-ass show of paintings that stop you in your tracks with their emotional intensity. Beane’s surfaces are so interesting—so rich. From partially erased blackboard, to burlap, brass nails (used for their association with Christ’s Passion), roof shingles (some of which are incised with images of protective African masks), collage, drawing, scratch marks, stock images of 1940s pitch men, stenciled letters, block numbers, and heavily applied paint. Beane’s not afraid to get messy with drips and frayed edges that add to the overall rawness of the work.
Douglas interprets the paintings this way: “Count back the years; this was 2008. Looking back, we begin to understand what the banking community was doing, we begin to understand mortgage failures, and we begin to understand the resulting economic decline.” She said, “We can read references to this period in all of the work; we see the fat cats and greed and the commercialization of our lives. All that stuff’s in all of this.”
“I talk a lot about Lisa’s basic language of art making,” Douglas continued. “You have to read her paintings. Certain elements are symbolic. There are things that you don’t notice readily like the sheep that repeat over and over and over, some with a bull’s eye on them, that should be read in relationship to the other menacing elements in the work.”
“What comes through here is people’s innocence in the face of danger, danger that’s not understood and that’s at times unexplainable,”said Douglas.
With pretty colors, jolly figures, and some sassy turns of phrase, Beane both masks and draws attention to her underlying message. There’s bravery and honesty in these works tempered with a childlike iconography that has certain recurring symbols.
Her paintings are populated with familiar figures from pop culture, for example Trayvon Martin becomes Daffy Duck helpfully (and poignantly) trying out different walks because, as described by Zimmerman, Martin was “walking unnaturally slow with a meandering gait.”
One can’t help but wonder where is the threat in that? Above all, Beane uses humor, whether twisted, ironic, or just plain joyful, it’s the thread that binds her work. It’s her way of dealing with the things that are too hard to talk about or really show.
And then there’s the love. Love is the basso continuo pulsing through the work whether it’s the actual word or the Xs and Os that dance across the paintings’ surfaces with abandon. In “Pigs” they have become an ocean that threatens to drown the avaricious swine in love. It says boatloads about who Lisa Beane is.
As Douglas said, “You feel she’s trying to will the love no matter what; she’s trying to get to the better place.” This is very true, but she is also intent on taking us with her.