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The Never-ending Exploration

Setting foot inside Justin Beal’s studio, which is tucked behind an auto-repair shop along “Windshield Row” on Mission Street just north of downtown, one is struck by the multiple personalities of the artist’s practice. On one wall, there’s a large, framed text-based piece that reads, “We Want to Do Everything for You That Your Mother Would Do if She Understood Projects and Construction Like We Do”; on another, there’s a color photo of a sculptural piece that is covered by an imprint of paint that, upon further inspection, reveals itself to be a pattern made using the sculptural element as a kind of stamp (“indexing,” as it is called in the fine-art world); on the floor sits a foamcore maquette of the ACME Gallery — where Beal will have his first solo show early this spring. On yet another wall, a device hangs from a rope that has been used to limn the surface with the intersecting circle figure known as a vesica piscis. It all leads up to my favorite touch: a single pane of glass, lodged between two rafters, acting as a shelf for two halves of a grapefruit that have been left to, more or less, evolve. Apparently, Beal likes grapefruits. This past fall, for ACME’s “Tugboat” group show, the artist bisected three as part of a sculpture in which he sandwiched the halves between a horizontal pane of glass and a tablelike base made of dry wall.

“I actually never intended to show any of the sculptures I made that included fruit in them. The whole point was to make a sculpture that would ultimately only exist in a photo, but then, after I made them, I kinda liked how they came out,” grins Beal, while tending to the citrusy detritus that is dripping from the rafters as we speak. “What was even stranger to me was the fact that people would actually consider collecting them, given their extremely non-archival nature.”

When it comes to creativity, one never knows what will resonate. Artist Jim Shaw’s “dream drawings” were spurred on by a therapist trying to help break his creative block. Francis Ford Coppola feared the gangster-genre schlock mire would devour him if he took the Godfather gig. Beck’s “Loser” was the one goof song on an album comprising mostly savvy Americana. The list goes on and on, and in Beal’s case, it was his pulpy punk ode to the “mutable object” that struck a chord. In the end, though, what matters is what you do after you’ve got their attention.

By the looks of it, Beal’s going to do a bit of everything.

To call him the art equivalent of a jack-of-all-trades might be hokey and vague, and yet stepping inside his studio challenges one to come up with a more apt description.

“A few years ago, Matthew Higgs (the writer/curator) came over for a studio visit, and he said, ‘There’s a ton of stuff in this room, but I don’t get the sense that any of it is entirely resolved yet,’ ” remembers Beal, when asked what all this madness means. “At the time, you know, it seemed like a bit of a blow, but the criticism really fueled me to push myself to resolve each individual piece. And I really love that idea, that in a single body of work, one idea might take the form of a book, one might become a sculpture, and yet, still, there might be another piece which ends up a set of photos.”

To hear Beal tell the story, his whole entry into the world of fine art was a series of happy accidents along a roundabout path, though more than a few of those twists and turns were born of his desire to, one way or another, create something: First there was undergrad architecture at Yale, then off to Joshua Tree to work for an artist, Andrea Zittel, of growing international renown, then back east for a stint at the Whitney Studio Program in New York, followed by a turn at the cutting-edge TaalmanKoch Architecture, which is known for its work on the Dia-Beacon museum, as well as for a house in the small California mountain town of Three Rivers for artist Catherine Opie, and then a more art-specific project with Los Angeles icon Chris Burden — The Small Skyscraper, which was exhibited at LACE in 2003.

“It all kinda started for me in the ’90s, during that brief period when it seemed like art and architecture were going to fuse or something,” recalls the lanky, sandy-haired Beal when I visit him at his East Hollywood bungalow. Beal is trolling for layman-caliber info about one of his obsessions, the Memphis Group, a postmodern design collective that started in Milan back in 1981 and is known for its outlandish palette and geo patterns. “But in the end, when I was working for TK Architecture, I realized that I was much more interested in what happened to the buildings after they were set free from the architect’s hands and functioning out in the world on their own.”

Not long after leaving Taalman Koch in 2004, Beal began the MFA program at USC. To help make ends meet, he got a job moving art over at The Project in Culver City with his buddy, curator/filmmaker Drew Heitzler. It was there, while banging crates around on La Cienega, that the two, along with Heitzler’s wife, the dancer and artist Flora Wiegmann, got the idea of taking over the space that had once been home to the semi-ominously named The Manhandler, and opening The Mandrake. Since then, the bar’s become a sort of clubhouse for Los Angeles’ art cognoscenti.

“Drew and me were just like, ‘Hey, we can do this, and it’s gotta be better than what we’re doing,” recalls Beal, while leaning up against the dark-blue fiberglass bar top on a recent night. The Mandrake, a narrow sort of East Coast–seeming affair with marred-concrete floors, a cedar ceiling, and tables made of swamp-cedar slices, sits smack-dab in the middle of gallery row. In the back is a screening room, where tonight a blazing fire is on loop, offering comfort to the scant few who enter.

Beal admits the bar business has its ups and downs, but says that, between being able to make a bit of a living and also beginning to pay back investors, he’s managing to put in a respectable amount of studio time. As Beal’s solo show draws near, it’s time that will become increasingly precious — ACME isn’t exactly a small space to fill.

Though Beal is still working it out, he says the show will “feature sculptural as well as flat pieces, including photographs, some text-based works and a wall drawing.” Thematically, he says it will deal “with an idea that’s been present in my work for a while — the encounter between the human body and architecture and the overlaps in histories of design, art and consumer culture.” Central to articulating that theme will be the aforementioned vesica piscis wall drawing.

“The two interlocking circles appear in the mausoleum that the architect Carlo Scarpa designed for an Italian television manufacturer, Giuseppe Brion, as well as graphic designer Massimo Vignelli’s design for the Bloomingdale’s logo, as well as also being on a Kool cigarettes billboard that happens to be in a photograph of a Christopher Wool billboard in New York, amongst other places,” explains Beal, adding that “the vesica is also a sort of Venn diagram which could serve as a key of how the show fits together.”

It’s clear, talking with Beal, that what interests him is work that has an open-ended nature, and that he hopes his many-formed explorations will be catalysts for viewers to ask questions and draw conclusions from the connections he highlights.