Art in America
Ruble, Casey. “Rachel Beach: Bespoke,” Art in America, (October 2008), p.184-5; illus.



Envision the trippiness of Op art combined with the solidity and vernacular references of Richard Prince's muscle-car hoods, and you might approach the work in “History Repeating,” Rachel Beach's first solo show at Bespoke. Co-opting elements of architectural and furniture detailing and raw building materials, Beach's slick sculpture-painting hybrids playfully investigate the gray areas between flatness and volume, illusion and reality.

Take, for example, The Harem (Medallion), 2007, one of 13 round, hubcap-sized pieces packed salon-style, along with 21 other works, in the the tiny gallery. Initially, The Harem appears to be a shallow-relief, wood-veneer disk with a scalloped central puncture whose edge is colored a Jolly Rancher-candy turquoise. But closer observation reveals that this turquoise “edge” is actually a sliver of trompe-l'oeil oil painting applied on the disk's face, whereas the actual edge of the cutout is covered with the same mahogany veneer as the front. Adding to the trickery, parts of the painted “edge” simultaneously describe concavity and convexity, while the continuity of the mahogany from the actual edge to the front of the work optically collapses the real-life three-dimensional volume.

If you're confused by this description, you get the point. The pleasure of experiencing Beach's work lies in the in-person visual decoding.

Beach's process involves isolating three-dimensional, usually ornamental, architectural forms (the cap of a banister railing, details of an ancient Greek doorway), translating them into two-dimensional sketches and then retranslating them into forms in which what once had volume is physically flat but illusionistically three-dimensional.

What is lost (or, more accurately, gained) in this translation is what gives the work both its humor and substance. Tumble (Sticks and Stacks configuration #3) custom (2008), the largest piece in the show and the only one to forgo painting, achieves its illusion of overlapping wood planks through the marquetrylike configuration of various kinds of veneer, the shifting direction of the grain helping to establish the perspective. The Pip (2008), at 6 1/2 by 4 by 2 1/2 inches the smallest piece in the show, resembles an orthographic drawing of a quotation mark.

In contrast to the sculptures features in such recent shows as the New Museum's “Unmonumental” and the 2008 Whitney Biennial, which favor base materiality and structural transparency, Beach's work unapologetically goes for craftsmanship over craftiness. The “just kidding” moment that occurs when you figure out the trick of one piece is rewarding enough to make you engage with the next.