Mark Beck’s realistic paintings include land and seascapes, but he is best known for his simple and often isolated old houses. These moody, plain clapboard structures trigger inexplicable emotions.
“I think people can tell there are disturbances in my paintings, odd things that are going on,” Beck said. “I like the fact that they are lonely, because that’s exactly what I intend.”
Beck’s recent work will be featured at The Vault Gallery in Cambria, which has represented him since 1993. The artist will drive from his home in Albuquerque, N.M., for the event, and to revisit San Luis Obispo, where he spent two decades.
Beck first came here to study agronomy at Cal Poly. But “I kept finding myself going to lifedrawing classes, art classes,” he said, pursuing a love of drawing that began at age 10.
He moved to Portland, Maine, got his art degree, then returned to San Luis Obispo.
Gone are the days when Beck slept on a mattress in the living room of a Victorian house undergoing renovation, or lived in a chicken coop where he liked the light, or a converted tool shed where he traded art for rent.
“So I didn’t have to get a job,” he said with a laugh.
Another signature theme is a room bereft of furniture or containing only a bed or sofa.
“Sometimes it’s hard for me to know exactly what a painting is about,” he acknowledges. “Generally, what I do is I conceal specifics in the painting.”
The sense of mystery and melancholy that prevails is reminiscent of Edward Hopper, one of his major influences. Although Beck wants his paintings to provide pleasure, and viewers often say that the sad little houses give them a sense of peace, he intends something deeper.
He is concerned about the American Dream, the desire for a home and how few people achieve it. Beck keeps up with current affairs and politics, which obliquely find their way into his work.
“I make the paintings so I can express myself,” he said, “but I don’t want to be preachy.”
From his early days as an artist in San Luis Obispo, he was drawn to the old commercial buildings downtown and the homes along Buchon Street. Struggling to make ends meet, he sold most of his paintings to business owners and proprietors. That was before he hit the big time. By 1990, his paintings brought $3,000 prices. They are now fetching five times that.
During his time on the Central Coast, Beck taught art to California Men’s Colony inmates for four years, an experience he recalls as intense and enjoyable.
“It was a slice of our society that very few people get to see,” he said. It was an eye-opener for him as well. “It made me think about a lot of grim realities, too.”
His first show was at the University Union Gallery (then called Julian McPhee Gallery) on the Cal Poly campus, and, by 1990, he had gallery representation in Laguna Beach.
Nine years ago, Beck moved to New Mexico to be near his parents and siblings, where he and his wife are raising their 6-year-old daughter. It was also a place to buy an affordable home.