“A lot of collage artists are very meticulous. They’ll say, ‘Here’s a drawer of horses,’ or ‘Here’s a drawer of trees.’ I don’t have that.”
This is collage artist Lou Beach. But he is definitively not one of those collage artists. We’re standing in the studio of his Los Angeles home, but in place of neatly labeled drawers and categorized clippings are mountains of old books, catalogues, and magazines foraged from eBay and garage sales, arranged in a skyline teetering over his work table. There are file cabinets and chests of drawers, but he gleefully does without labels.
“My friend [collage artist] Tony Fitzpatrick has drawers like “Green Borders” and “Red Stars.” I was staying at his place in Chicago once when I had a show there, so I switched labels on his drawers, like I wrote “Ukrainian Underpants” and pasted over “Blue Stars.”
Also unlike certain artists, Beach is not one to speak profoundly of meaning, or to wax earnestly about the blurred planes between art and existence. He would assure you his cutting and pasting to lightly disrupt a friend’s workplace is only important as a reminder that “Ukrainian Underpants” is a funny phrase. But if pressed, he would likely admit that yes, his muse is chaos.
“I work in chaos. Usually, something triggers a subject or narrative of some kind, and I’ll go to my table and start messing with images. Oftentimes, I don’t know what the picture is about until I’m in it, and even then don’t know until the picture’s finished.”
To call Beach’s chaos controlled would do a disservice to its truth. But he does apply boundaries.
Take his clutter of supplies and sources. They are relegated to the studio while the only clue that an artist lives in his Spanish-style home is the impressive collection of art – his own pieces (his wife claims them for the living room before he can send them off to shows), those of his children (both collage artists in their own right), his friends, and even a sculpture of a dog constructed entirely of dark green Export “A” cigarette packs. “Prison art. I like going to book fairs, and I bought it from a guy who was selling old books.”
In his studio, Beach keeps the “chaos” in specific spaces. I ask if a shelf of old books is material for cutouts. “No, those are just old books I like. There’s nothing in there I would cut up.” Then he points to a shelf nearly twice as large. “These are for cutting up.”
And even when he is getting down to the nitty gritty, he doesn’t pull from the vast reaches of the chaos, but random segments housed in a dozen sweater boxes. “These boxes contain a myriad of stuff, and I don’t know what’s in them. It’s a surprise. So I’ll say, ‘I’m just going to work from these three boxes and see what I find.’ Otherwise, it’s even more chaotic than I can handle.”
It’s a meta-collage. He’s not just assembling bits and pieces to create his art. He’s assembling them from bits and pieces of his massive collection of materials. This method of grappling with the chaos, using it as a tool as important as his glue and scissors comes from years straddling the commercial and creative worlds. But it all started when Beach was just a baby.
“Well, it’s apocryphal, but my parents used to tell me they would leave me in my crib with magazines and newspapers and I would tear them to shreds as a toddler. But I don’t know the truth. It’s a family legend.”
Beach’s childhood fostered his artistry, but he didn’t particularly think about the arts or aspire to practice them. “My father was a research scientist, so he was always working with his hands, making things and making things work, so I inherited that. And my mother had a great sense of color and design. She dressed very well, and she kept the house looking great, even when we were poor.”
The closest Beach came to a fascination with art was his interest, while in high school, in advertising. “Whatever that meant. I didn’t know.” He liked the ads in Life Magazine, the ones he saw on TV. He thought advertising would be “a cool thing to do.” But, perhaps due to not knowing quite what it was, he didn’t pursue it aggressively and after quitting college worked several menial jobs until he journeyed to Los Angeles.
“I lived on the beach as a hippie. Then I came into town and lived in a Hollywood guesthouse off an alley. One day my roommate and I dropped some acid. We were walking down La Cienega, and there was this shop called The Underwear Underground, and we wandered in.”
The owner was a woman who Beach would come to live with, and who would ultimately formally introduce him to the art world. “She was more attuned to art than I was, and she had more knowledge than I had. We went to a lot of museums and galleries and I began making assemblages.”
Much as he creates today, Beach forayed into assemblage art because the materials for it were around him. “I worked in a machine shop that produced hardware for a company called Glide King. They made the slides for drawers that make them open and close easily, so they had a lot of drawers around. Drawers are basically open-faced, small wooden boxes, so I started bringing them home, arranging things in them.”
Though it was his entree to the world of art making, assemblage didn’t stick for Beach. His continued self-education, through reading and going to museums and galleries, brought him finally to collage.
He moved to Boston, ostensibly on the way to Europe, and met “this old New England Blueblood, a wonderful lady,” who was sponsoring a theater group. The group was mounting a production at the newly formed Boston Center for the Arts, and with space in the lobby for art, the sponsor tapped Beach to put up his first one-man show.
Around this time, Beach was creating what he refers to as hippie collages. “I called them The Ladies. Surreal women composed of butterflies and fish and animal parts. Looking back, they seem so distant to what I do now – but they were early works. I had one published in Boston Magazine about Jerzy Kosinski, the author of The Painted Bird, because it was an appropriate image- a woman made out of feathers and bird parts.” That work lead to assignments for pamphlet covers for some Boston educational companies, work “with someone else’s purpose behind it rather than just my own.” Though he was putting forth someone else’s message, Beach didn’t mind being able to make money from his work. “At that point, I was a janitor, a sexton. I lived in the basement of the Arlington St. Church when I started getting those couple of gigs.”
When Beach moved back to LA, he was offered his first record cover assignment, which led to his being able to sustain himself solely on record covers and magazine illustrations. “I was hot for a little while, you know?”
Hot enough to do a record cover for the first single of a singer-songwriter with just one name: Madonna. At that time, he was using current imagery, a practice he’s since left far behind, for legal reasons. “It was Madonna’s first big hit, ‘Everybody.’ I didn’t even know who she was. I just cut stuff out of a current Life Magazine for the cover art. You just can’t do that!” Did anyone care? “Nobody said anything to me. And I hope they don’t now!”
As Beach kept getting illustration work, he began to leave behind the scissors and rubber cement for a brand new technology – in the 80s; he talked Commodore into giving him one of their new personal computers, the Amiga.
He enjoyed working with it, becoming primarily a computer illustrator into the 2000s, but it also changed the way he worked. “Before that, if you finished something, and changes were requested, there wasn’t too much you could do besides start over. But with the computer, it was like, ‘Hey, can you make this green? Can we make that bigger? Can you move this over there?’”
Ultimately, it seemed a fair trade because Beach could work faster with tools like Photoshop, but it also almost became too easy. “I started using a lot of stock pictures and I was given massive libraries of photo disks. I painted myself into a corner. It’s nice to do a piece of art that’s unexpected, and I was doing less unexpected stuff. I just got lazy.”
At this point, in the early 2000s, Beach would occasionally work with his hands to make a gift, but otherwise did not make physical collages. His kids prodded him, and inspired him to pick up the scissors and glue again. “I said, ‘Okay, maybe it’s time.’”
Shedding the restrictions of full-time illustration helped Beach break out of his habits and into his discomfort zone. “When you’re making illustrations, the work is perhaps a little less adventuresome and less experimental than what I’m doing now. But I’m still learning and experimenting which is great because it keeps it fresh.”
“Oh, look, mom! A face!” Beach squeals in an impression of an over-eager child as he moves around two scraps on his worktable, and by chance they form what could be seen as two eyes and a mouth. He’s poking fun at the process, but the process is essentially that. “Maybe I’ll cut it up. Maybe I’ll get rid of that part. I don’t know yet! It’s pretty much play.”
I ask about the lack of organization. What if he does need a horse and doesn’t have that “horse drawer” to reach for. “I don’t work that way. It’s not like I say: ‘Oh, a horse would look good here.’ It’s rather: ‘I can make this into a horse if I want to.’ I like the challenge of making something out of nothing. It’s like playing improvisational jazz. It’s making stuff up as I go along, and if I’m lucky, something comes of it.”