Art imitates play

by Jordan Green

|| @JordanGreenYES

Itold myself I was going to slow down and take a different approach, but that’s not exactly happening,” says Jeff Beck. “I had the skateboard show, the gallery opening and the solo show all within the space of two weeks.”

Sporting tennis shoes with blue, flame-job detail, the 36-year-old artist is seated at a corner booth at Common Ground coffeehouse in Greensboro’s Lindley Park neighborhood. His new gallery, Menace Inc. Studios, opened in the back of the coffeehouse with an exhibit called Childish Play on Jan. 17. Beck’s wife, Jennifer, and his teenage daughter, Autumn, are back in the gallery playing pool.

The inaugural show at Menace Inc., featuring more than a dozen artists from around the Triad, reflects Beck’s enthusiasm for what he calls “low-brow art,” a burgeoning genre that takes inspiration from retro cartoons and their various spinoffs in movies, comics, action figures and even graffiti.

“Diamonds Are Forever” and “Forest Spirit,” Beck’s two contributions to Art Deck’o Nouveau, which opened at Uptown Artworks on Jan. 12, sold on the first day. His first solo show, It Came from the ’80s, launched at Earshot records store in Winston-Salem earlier in the month.

“I see a lot of art galleries doing fine art,” Beck says.

“I’ve always been drawn to low-brow, urban artwork like graffiti. I didn’t see an outlet for that here. I’ve been getting into the custom toy thing. It’s big in New York and California. It hasn’t really caught on here yet.”

Indeed, the walls of Menace Inc. more resemble a miniature toy museum than a gallery at times, with reptilian gladiators, grotesque monsters and other such exotic specimens lining the shelves. A set of stuffed blobby creatures by Mireya Garcia suggests “Sponge Bob Square Pants.” Kenya Thompson’s “Water Nymph” is glamorous black female figure in a glittery, aquacolored dress. The hard plastic encasement around her suggests a collector item that hasn’t been removed from its package.

“Tagged,” one of the few pieces by Beck in the Childish Play exhibit, depicts a Star Wars Stormtrooper as a statue defaced by graffiti. “Vader suckz” might be the best tag.

The motivation behind Beck’s use of movies and cartoons as subject matter is pretty simple.

“It brings me back to my childhood,” he says. “It was a simpler time for me,” he adds. “I had a lot of fun.”

Some artists might use recycled pop culture as platform for political messages or ironic commentary. Not Beck.

“For me, it’s just an homage,” he says. “It doesn’t necessarily have a deep meaning.”

“Possession is 9/10,” one of five pieces in It Came from the ’80s that utilize a glossy, computer-generated

graphic design overlaid by machine-cut wood pieces, is a playful tribute to Skeletor, the nemesis in “Masters of the Universe.”

The overlay projects the stenciled text: “Skeletor: I must possess all, or I possess nothing.”

Beck expounds briefly on the theme beneath the narrative of Skeletor’s plans for world domination being thwarted in episode after episode.

“Now you have cartoons where evil wins from time to time,” he says. “I think back then they were more into good always winning over evil.”

Being that Earshot is a record store, about half of the pieces reference the music of the 1980s, including Prince, Michael Jackson, Run DMC and Guns N’ Roses.

Using the same template as “Possession is 9/10,” “Hair Bands” quotes from the lyrics of “Patience” by Guns N’ Roses: “I’ve been walkin’ the streets at night tryin’ to get it right.”

The gun-metal colored overlay reveals a skull in an explosion of multi-colored lights and manufactured fog. The effect could be rain-slicked streets or stage lights that ultimately betray the star, but there is little distance between the artist and the sentiment.

“Going back and reading the lyrics, you could take them out of the song,” Beck says. “You could apply them to your life; they were words to live by.” !


Menace Inc. Studios is located in the back of Common Grounds coffeehouse, at 602 S. Elam Ave. in Greensboro. For more information visit