By Mark Mussari
Denver-based artist Jim Beckner paints like a jazz musician. The blues bop, the oranges swing, and the yellows vibrate. Drawn to the beat of the city, the artist creates expressionistic urban landscapes that show his unabashed love of color. More than anything, his paintings dance with their own energy, and an urban rhythm emanates from his canvases.
Beckner was born and raised in Lakewood, CO, a suburb of Denver. Art played an integral role in the family. “My dad was—and still is—a watercolor artist,” he explains. “He does a lot of Colorado landscapes, very detailed, specific, realistic artwork.” Beckner remembers drawing and coloring at every opportunity when he was a child. “Both of my parents recognized that it was something I enjoyed,” he recalls. “I often drew to entertain those around me.”
Occasionally, the Beckner family would drive into downtown Denver to eat out at a restaurant. “I always thought the city was an exciting place,” notes the artist. “It had a certain edginess about it.” Those early excursions, and the urban sensibility they fostered in the impressionable youth, would have a profound effect on his burgeoning talent.
Encouraged by his parents, Beckner took art classes in junior high school. “I began to realize that I had some skill at drawing,” he says, “that I could see something and then re-create it.” In high school his art teacher was artist Ray Knaub, a well-known painter of western landscapes. “My senior year I did a representational oil painting of me and my friends sitting on a bench. It won first place in a county-wide art show,” Beckner recalls.
Pragmatism took hold, however, when he entered Colorado State University in Fort Collins. “My parents and I agreed it made sense to have something to fall back on, so I decided to major in marketing,” he says. “I figured I could always paint on my own time.” To that end he minored in painting and filled his electives with art history and studio art classes. He took three classes with CSU painting professor Patrice Sullivan—an experience that continues to resonate. “She was the first one to help me understand how to see shapes of color,” he explains. “Before that I was more inclined to view art as drawing something and then filling it in with color.”
Today he traces many of the origins of his current style to his college days. “I look back at the paintings I did then,” says Beckner, “and some were very vibrant with a lot of thick brushwork. I still handle the brush the same way, although now I’m more deliberate about it.”
After graduating from college, Beckner worked a number of odd jobs. He continued painting and took classes at the Art Students League of Denver, where he found another mentor in painter Mark Daily. “Mark’s more of a representational artist. And a good colorist,” notes Beckner. “He also uses a thick impasto.”
As time progressed, Beckner developed a painterly style in which color and movement replaced form and outline as his driving forces. These days, “I don’t particularly enjoy working on the drawing aspect of a painting. I’m too impatient,” he confesses. “I like to work quickly and get a lot of paint on the canvas fast.” The result is a body of work heavily weighted to urban landscapes, in which the artist infuses everyday scenes with the pulsating rhythms of city life. “As they say,” he adds, “paint what you know.”
The breadth of Beckner’s artistic output reveals that he moves freely among stylistic approaches, from post-Impressionism to expressionism and even fauvism—all of which are heavily dependent on a strong color palette. Some of his cityscapes and beach scenes convey a post-Impressionist sense of capturing a specific place at a certain moment. Most of his canvases exhibit a personal, more subjective approach to color, à la the expressionists.
In his bolder moments, Beckner moves into a fauvist mode, allowing colors to exude emotional nuance. Some of his paintings even veer toward abstraction in their distillation of forms into arresting blocks of color. “I try to push boundaries, to see how far I can go,” he explains. “You can take two of my paintings and put them side by side, and they might not be immediately identifiable as having been done by the same artist. But if you put a group of my paintings together, it’s like an album of different songs by the same musician.”
As to his enlightened sense of color, he nods to two masters as important ongoing inspirations: Matisse and Monet. “I like Monet’s works later in his life, when they were all about color,” he notes. For contemporary influences, Beckner cites the techniques of two Denver painters: the thick brushwork of Nancy Switzer and the fluid, expressive style of Kevin Weckbach.
Beckner usually begins with color photographs, many of them of downtown Denver. “I’m drawn to the temperature of colors—cool versus warm—but I’m not a slave to the photograph,” he explains. “I try to choose colors that are out of the ordinary. I like to challenge myself, to paint myself into a corner and see if I can get out.” Thus, an urban street scene captured on camera might become a subtle study in light and shadows, or it may burst into a sweeping array of brightly colored shapes signifying movement and structure.
“I don’t want to concentrate solely on the element of getting the drawing correct,” says Beckner. Instead of trying to reproduce the architectural geometry of the city, he emphasizes its energy with the colors he chooses and the way he shapes them: “I struggle to maintain that energy and life.” He says he has a clear vision of a painting before he begins. “A lot of thought and decision-making get added to my intuitive ideas,” he adds.
His piece MOTION IN BLUES offers a prime example of this seeming paradox. A medley of blues—from cobalt to ultramarine—sets the mood while cars convey a sense of motion. The lines in the street seem almost haphazardly placed, but their parallel and perpendicular angles keep the eye moving around the canvas. An occasional dab or stripe of orange offers a subtle complement. “Adding some orange created an element of warmth that is difficult to achieve with only blues,” says the artist.
Pedestrians crossing a busy street provide the movement in CITY LIFE, a piece that is much less dependent on a purely expressive use of colors. “In this one I was interested in conveying the temperature of daylight,” he points out. “For me, this painting was an exercise in subtlety. The challenge was maintaining the relationship of light and shadow.” Atmosphere, particularly in the shaded areas behind the sunlit pedestrians, drives the bustling feel of this scene. “I like the idea of urbanscapes with a gritty style that still maintains a sense of vitality,” he notes.
Beckner has turned the garage of his Colorado home into a studio. “It’s not the most beautiful studio in the world,” he laughs, “but when I’m painting, I don’t think about anything other than the palette and the canvas.” Not surprisingly, this lover of city life is nocturnal in his work habits. “I tend to paint evenings, between five o’clock and midnight.” Beckner has two young daughters with his wife, Heather. “Heather is one of my most influential advisors. I value her opinion as much as anyone’s,” he affirms.
“As I go from painting to painting, I move back and forth between representational and non-representational,” Beckner says. More than anything, he wants “the emotional quality to come through” in his paintings. He needn’t worry: His canvases pulse with the sights and sounds of the city. You can almost smell the asphalt and hear the horns honking.
Abend Gallery, Denver, CO; Coda Gallery, Park City, UT; Atlanta Art Gallery, Atlanta, GA.
20th Anniversary Show, Abend Gallery, through November 24.
Holiday Miniatures Show, Abend Gallery, December 3-31.
Featured in November 2010