Beard’s recent work appears to me to be a reaffirmation of this genetic trace in the history of Western art. Perhaps that is one reason why his recent paintings that involve details from the great masters of the past acquire a particular poignancy. After Vermeer (2007) isolates part of the artist’s Study of a Young Woman (1665-7) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Few people today could remain unaware of the astonishing celebrity of Vermeer’s handful of paintings, which is aptly conveyed by the speed with which the related Girl with a pearl earring has migrated to the cover of a historical novel, and inspired the casting of a film.
Beard’s monochrome detail presumes an in ant recognition, but invests that process with a further dividend, which is precisely the intersection between the images as it takes flight in our imagination, and the obdurate presence of the plane surface. Beard’s Pope (Velázquez) (2007) selects the very image that Francis Bacon so memorably transformed into a screaming, caged pontiff – a raw excrescence on the canvas. But for Beard, the prototype is once again set at a distance, placed apart but unmistakably evoked through the tender attentions of the secondary painter.
A work like Gandhi (2007) certainly implies no special comment on the charismatic status of the subject. It simply adopts an image that is widely recognised, and places it before the attentive spectator. The square format indeed accentuates the effect that Beard noted in the previously quoted interview relating to the Adraga paintings – that the subject should appear ‘banal and naked in its appearance’. But the correlate to this ‘banality’ is indeed the intensification of the viewing experience. Beard paraphrased Robert Rauschenberg in the flier for his most recent London exhibition in the early months of 2010: ‘I wanted to show that a painting could have the dignity of not calling attention to itself, that it could only be seen if you really looked at it’. In the series of paintings exhibited on that occasion, the tension between the viewer’s expe ations and the experience of seizing the image’s identity was indeed carried to an extraordinary pitch.
The retrieval of a well-known female face – famous actress, political heroine or iconic woman from the walls of the museum (see Marilyn Munroe) – was rendered difficult on occasions almost to the point of impossibility. It was also insuperably hard to measure the technical feat of producing an image that appeared to the viewer as no more than a mere sliver of resemblance.