Joe Biel: Drawing Vast Negative Spaces


In Partnership with UCR ARTSblock. UCR ARTSblock's mission is to provide a cultural presence, educational resource, community center and intellectual meeting ground for the university and the community.

In the past three years, since The Culver Center of the Arts at UCR ARTSblock opened its doors to public, it has been an incubator for creativity and ideas in the disciplines of dance, film, music, theater and the visual arts. It has also attracted several visual artists to produce site-responsive work in every niche of the cultural institution. The most recent artist to develop ideas in response to the site is Los Angeles-based artist, Joe Biel, who will create a 45-foot mural, "Sentry," as part of his first solo exhibition in Southern California in several years. The exhibition will also feature several monumental drawings. They will be on view from December 21, 2013 to March 22, 2014.

Known for his figurative drawings sustained by panoramic or vast negative space, Biel is the first in the roster of artists to produce a site-specific installation that does not consist of three-dimensional elements. However, the synopsis of his latest project, "Sentry" (2013) conquers multiple layers of the human experience that contain solid and genuine depth. The characters in his work exist in frozen, fragmented "anti-narratives" encountering numerous contradictions that correspond to our everyday lives. These "contradictions" fall into categories of empathy, irony, neutrality, and vulnerability. The centerpiece and title of the exhibition attributes to the concept of a guard or "sentry" whose role is to prevent unauthorized entry to a place and keeps a watchful eye for threat. Biel explains that [the project] is specifically appropriate for a cultural space such as the Culver Center of the Arts where the experience of the viewer is as impermanent as the subject of his latest work.

Lewis deSoto's Tahquitz. | Photo courtesy of UCR ARTSblock
Lewis deSoto's Tahquitz. | Photo courtesy of UCR ARTSblock

The first artist to utilize the grand expanse of the atrium were the San Francisco-based artists, Lewis de Soto and Erin Neff, who in 2012 incorporated the stories of Tahquitz1, a primordial creature who lived around Palm Springs and San Jacinto mountain areas. deSoto animated the majestic forty-foot atrium of the Culver using sound, light technology and the collaboration with mezzo-soprano Erin Neff and the Cahuilla Bird Singers. Also in 2012, Michael Shroads, as a part of his Culver Arts Research Laboratory (CARL) Residency, placed a ten x twelve foot wall that resembled the grain of the atrium's walnut floors. His series, "Hello Wood," was a pun on the computer programming protocol 'hello world.' Following Shroads, was Patrick Quan, also a CARL Residency recipient, who produced multiple works that responded to the various spaces in the Culver, most significantly, the juxtaposition he created using rumpled, black trash bags to emulate a turbulent, dream-like landscape backed by the elegance of the atrium. This year, artists began exploring other spaces beyond the main atrium at the Culver Center. Hiromi Takizawa was attracted to the raw space near the entry of the facility. Her piece, "ULTRAVIOLET," on view through January 4, 2014, was a response to the role of light in architecture and environment explicitly within the surroundings of UCR ARTSblock. Currently, Biel's "Sentry" sprawls through the stretch of walls in the North Atrium Gallery of the Culver Center of the Arts.

"Sentry" (2013) is an ode to humanity and its trial to reconcile with contradictions brought by endless possibilities of changes in modern civilization. Biel's figures are often anti-protagonists placed in situations where they are treated as guises for concepts or ideas, but unlike most allegories, his tableaus never conclude with a moral.

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Biel acknowledges author David Foster Wallace for the content, namely his thoughts on the role of irony and platonic beauty in contemporary culture. According to Wallace, the artist today is in a kind of impossible double bind--caught between the solipsistic and corporately co-opted irony on one hand, and traditional ideas of beauty that have been pressed into service by crass entertainment2. Wallace talks about the notion that the struggle between these forces is the field the artist of today operates within, and that there is no clear winner or resolution. In "Sentry" this plays out specifically in the passive role of the figures. It is unclear whether they are held captive by a higher power, or whether their condition is self-imposed. Irresolution is heightened further by the stillness of the scene and the fact that the thus-far untapped potential for the physical power displayed by the figures creates a constantly renewed tension."

Drawing installation -- Day 2. | Photo by Nikolay Maslov and courtesy of UCR ARTSblock
Drawing installation -- Day 2. | Photo by Nikolay Maslov and courtesy of UCR ARTSblock

The fragmented "anti-narrative" landscape of Sentry is centered around two unknown, chained figures, facing away from the viewer, standing stoically waist deep in an non-descript body of water. Separating the figures is a shelf drawn in the center with a key hanging on a hook and a freshly lit cigarette gingerly placed on the edge. Biel refers to the figures as titans who have been subdued by a more "civilized" race of younger gods. These titans represent the old world culture whose inherent knowledge is being conquered by the irony of post-modern ideals particularly in art, music, literature and film. This conflict is as decipherable as modern day arguments such as old versus new, analog versus digital, classical vs. postmodern, but set to the question of "to conform or to resist." To illustrate the dispute, the titans are heavily tattooed in classical music notes and poetry implying that they embody the authenticity of these art forms. Due to their role as submissive guardians, the titans face the conflict of following what is traditional and familiar, or embracing their full potential by experiencing a broader form of sincerity.

Joe Biel's "Sentry" (detail). | Photo by Jennifer Frias and courtesy of UCR ARTSblock

Biel explains, "The specific tattoos on each figure serve several functions. They complicate the possible role of the figures in helping to resist an easy single initial reading that the figures are athletes or pop/ cultural vanitas objects. The tattoos refer to subculture criminal worlds such as the Japanese Yakuza and the Russian criminal gangs, both for whom tattoo practices verge on the religiously ritualistic.

The tattoos also heighten the roles of the figures as being allegorical representations of platonic beauty, and highlight the ambivalent and contradictory roles such beauty plays in our contemporary culture. Biel reveals, "The specific pieces of music (The Requiem in D Minor by Mozart) and poetry ('The Rhine' by Friedriech Holderlin) have been chosen because they exist as singular pieces that push the boundaries of discreet neoclassical and enlightenment aesthetic and thought, and point to the extreme position the artist of today finds him/herself in."

According to Biel, the trompe-l'oeil shelf, (not pictured, which is in the process of being incorporated into the drawing), will display a dangling key and burning cigarette, represents a bridge between the titans and the viewer. While the entire landscape of "Sentry" is frozen in time, the center tableau will be drawn to exemplify movement and to signify time passing. Biel states "The 'pop out' wall will highlight the fact that in this case of site specificity is not limited to the visual/aesthetic, but plays a vital role in the actual creation of content. In essence the wall itself will be an interruption of the singularity and unity of the long wall. The splitting of space itself will become a metaphor for fragmentation of the self, and the breaking of platonic unity of past aesthetic traditions."

"Sentry" (detail). Photo by Jennifer Frias and courtesy of UCR ARTSblock

He further adds, "The treatment of the wall, i.e. the hyper realistic rendering of objects in the viewer's space, heightens the artifice and fragmentation between the illusionistic and fake world of the figures and the supposed real world of the viewer. So the architecture itself becomes a conceptual armature on which to build layers of meaning beyond the images of the figures themselves."

The artist and "Sentry" in progress. | Photo by Nikolay Maslov and courtesy of UCR ARTSblock

Overall, Joe Biel's "Sentry" installation imprints a concept of time and current activity to interact with the physical characteristics and texture of the Culver Center of the Arts. It is situated in the North Atrium gallery as an architectural frieze offsetting the artifice and the real. It embodies the impermanent experience the viewer may have when performances or visual art presentations are shown at a museum or cultural space. It also has the ability to involve the viewer to unite the fragments of their experience back into his or her consciousness.

The titans emerge as impressionistic pastiches of ideas and observations that link to sources in the arts. As effigies, the titans are unreliable witnesses to their surroundings and counterbalance the experience of the viewer who in turn, is invited to join the voluntary gesture with them. This dichotomy is particularly suggested in the hyperrealisitc rendering of the dangling keys prompting the viewer to mediate on authenticity with the external dimension of experience. Sentry weaves between what is real and what is symbolic which implies that something may be missing and something may always be in its place,3 to which one may wonder who is watching these figures, and as to whom, precisely, is the sentry?



1 'Tahquitz' is the name of a primordial creature, a nukatem, part of the creation story of the Cahuilla people who live in the Southern California areas of Palm Springs, San Gorgonio Pass, Hemet and Anza Borrego. This primordial being, according to the Cahuilla, wanders in the San Jacinto mountain range where a peak is named for him.

2 David Foster Wallace's interview with Larry McCaffery, Review of Contemporary Fiction (1993).

3 Jacques Lacan's theory on the order of "the real."


Joe Biel received an MFA in Painting from the University of Michigan and is currently on the faculty as Associate Professor in Studio Art at California State University, Fullerton. His work has been exhibited in galleries nationally and internationally at LA Louver Gallery, Roberts and Tilton Gallery, Acuna-Hansen Gallery and Angles Gallery in Los Angeles, Goff + Rosenthal Gallery in New York, Greg Kucera Gallery in Seattle, and Galerie Kuckei/Kuckei in Berlin. He has been included in group exhibitions at the Otis College of Art and Design and the Torrance Museum of Art in Los Angeles, the De Young Museum in San Francisco, the Laguna Art Museum in Laguna, CA, the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, CT and Diverseworks in Houston, TX. He has been awarded residencies at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art in Omaha, NE, at the 18th St Arts Center in Santa Monica and at the Ballingllen Foundation in Ballycastle, Ireland. He was the recipient of a Pollock-Krasner Foundation award in 2003 and in 2008. He lives and works in Los Angeles.

SENTRY: Large Scale Drawings by Joe Biel was organized by UCR ARTSblock and curated by Jennifer Frias, Associate Curator, Sweeney Art Gallery, University of California, Riverside. UCR's College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (CHASS) and the City of Riverside have provided support.

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