Michael Beam: Ne Plus Ultra (2014)

A Feature Solo Exhibition and Catalogue

November 8–December 20, 2014

At CEPA’s Big Orbit Project Space

CEPA Gallery was pleased to announce Ne Plus Ultra: A Ten Year Survey by Buffalo-based artist Michael Beam that opened November 8, 2014 at CEPA’s Big Orbit Project Space. The exhibition featured close to 30 artworks, surveying Beam’s 10 year career in Western New York, including works from important Western New York collectors, Gerald Mead, Dr. Peter Butera, Dotty Fitzgerald, Dave Giusiana, Michael Daloia and former AKAG director Louis Grachos.

This exhibition and publication are funded by the New York State Council on the Arts, and many generous individuals.

Artist’s Bio

An award winning artist, author, curator, educator and public speaker, Michael J. Beam holds a Masters of Fine Arts from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale (1998) and a Bachelor of Fine Arts from California University of Pennsylvania (1992). He has been presented with public and private acquisition awards, commendations and critical reviews from The River Front Times, St. Louis, MO; Art Voice, Buffalo, NY and Dugent Publishers, Miami, FL. Beam has exhibited his work in group and solo exhibitions across the Midwest and East coast. During his tenure in Western New York, Beam has participated in many exhibitions and contributed numerous works to important non-profit regional arts fundraisers.

The artist’s work can be found in public and private collections in Austin, TX; Boston, MA; Chicago, IL; Los Angeles, CA; Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, PA; St. Louis, MO; New York, NY and Washington D.C. His work also resides in private collections across the Buffalo/Niagara, NY region. His comprehensive studio website is forthcoming. 

Michael Beam is currently the Curator of Exhibitions and Collections at the Castellani Art Museum of Niagara University and resides in Buffalo, NY.

ne plus ultra

An occasion for an artist to present a significant and defining body of work, spanning several years, is a momentous opportunity. In Latin, ne plus ultra literally means ‘not further beyond’ and was the inscription on the Pillars of Hercules prohibiting passage by ships through the Strait of Gibraltar and into the unknown.

Consisting of examples of my work from noteworthy private collections, amplified with a body of new works; this exhibition represents the pinnacle of this period of my artistic development and thereby marks a noteworthy and quantifiable point in my career. Ne plus ultra is a presentation of my creative efforts and artistic achievements of the past decade.


My work offers a sense of possibility—a belief in the character of objects and their cause for reinterpretation. Every work springs from self-analysis; a representation of who I am, what I want and, perhaps, what I fear. Everything means something or two things but never—nothing. My works are born from images and objects; many of which have been discarded or reduced to flea-market fodder. I have always strived for my work to be multifaceted, like a personality. As most of my artworks suggest a simplistic presence, they also offer, for those interested, more than one layer of meaning.

I like that Feeling

I routinely pluck objects of kitsch and images of nostalgia from discarded popular culture; and debase, celebrate or juxtapose them. I like to think that my contextual sleight-of-hand, transforms banal items into sumptuous icons. These works of art take on a psychological dimension through dramatic staging and offer subliminal allegories of corruptive power, political misjudgments and the diversity of the human character. What matters most to me is how things look and the way we look at them and, in certain cases, interact with them. Through these works, an organizational formula has evolved; in most instances, this formula is vague and simple in execution. Ultimately, I want my work to have a certain charge, and I like to think that people who view the work would agree. It is the same intensity that I get when I view other successful artists’ work—I like that feeling and want more of it.

Therapy and the Un-Learned

The creative process can be very therapeutic, if for no other reason than that the artist who is not producing tends to go a little mad. My theory is that art provides validity and stability for the artist in one way or another as other preoccupations do not. Thus, the artist creates to feed some existential deprivation—maybe so. It is what is repeatedly un-learned that makes these works so ripe.

With this exhibition culminating with my (self-proclaimed) opus Three Dog Night (2014); I am marking a hiatus from art making to bring supplementary projects, which have been in the works for some time, to completion.
he darkening sky, perhaps lit from below by streetlamp light, or is that tinge of acid yellow the early onset of autumn?) All around you are paintings (or mostly paintings), big ones, smaller ones, some layered with collage, one with a small inkjet print of a photo inset in a little niche but otherwise two-dimensional, square or rectangular, and composed for the most part of squares and rectangles, a couple of diptychs, a 40-year-old serigraph in bright primary colors made by an artist in his twenties. To state the obvious once again (and all commentary on paintings should never do more than state the obvious, i.e., render in words what’s already apparent in the paintings for all to see), all (even that one, the 1975 serigraph, albeit that one is more abstract, or rather even more abstract than all the others, which are no less abstract than it) seem to be depictions of trees. But really what must be said (despite all the foregoing talk of trees, a worthy subject in its own right) is that the paintings are not trees at all (as Magritte’s pipe is not a pipe), but paintings. Obviously. Very masterful paintings, I would say, not for the realism of their rendering, by which some viewers (or makers) of paintings might measure mastery, but for their formal composition, surface textures, materiality, and mastery of medium. I speak not of the gathered “maple saplings” dragged in from outdoors, standing in three-dimensional space amongst us gallery goers; they and we are merely real. But speaking of sap, a very sappy but much memorized poem by a well-known but very minor poet ends—as badly as it begins—with the unjustly famous couplet “Poems are made by fools like me, / But only God can make a tree.” To paraphrase a more worthy (and almost as famous, but more justly so) concluding couplet from a masterpiece by a major poet—also coincidentally with the initials J.K.—who died even younger (26) than their author (Joyce Kilmer died at 31 in the Second Battle of the Marne, July 30, 1918), those lines (Kilmer’s, I mean), albeit famous, are neither beautiful nor true. Kilmer somehow manages—with false modesty and in just 15 syllables—to disparage all poems (and poets) as “foolish” while at the same time flattering himself by lumping himself in with his betters (“like me”) as playing second fiddle, yes, but only to God.

Not a believer myself (nature “makes” trees, the earth “makes” trees, trees in their death and decay “make” earth, etc., is what I believe), I also don’t hold human makers—poets and painters—in as low regard as the author of “Trees” pretends to. In fact I hold them (poets, painters, all artists in all mediums) in the highest regard of any being, even the fools, even, if pressed, fools like him. Nature might arguably be greater than art, OK, is greater than art, because artists—like all human beings—as well as all their subjects and materials, their brains and eyes and hands, come from nature, and nature is glorious and all that. Where would we be without it? But when it comes to creators, there is no creator higher than the human creator of art of any kind. An inferior poem like “Trees” may indeed be “only” a poem, and “made” by a “fool,” but a great poem like the odes of the other J.K. is a unique creation of considerable greatness (as is a great Grecian urn, say), arguably greater than any individual nightingale or “leaf-fringed” tree in nature, since trees in paintings (as in poems)…well, let J.K. (the good one) tell it himself: “nor ever can those trees be bare;… Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed / Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu.”

In the artistic discipline of painting, and particularly in his signature medium of dry pigment and encaustic, Mark Lavatelli is such a master. This exhibition alludes briefly (with “Treescape” and “Deadfall Timber”) to his earliest engagement with the subject of trees long before he moved back to the Eastern Great Lakes ecoregion (he had spent part of his early education at Cornell, in the nearby Finger Lakes, but had lived in the Midwest and southwestern desert region before moving to Buffalo) before quickly catching us up with his work of this century, this decade, and this year. I’ve loved his work (and his work ethic and mastery of medium) since the beginning of his time in Buffalo. Despite being a fan of text in visual art in general (in Cubist still lifes, collages, and the like), however, I resisted his first forays into overlaying stenciled words as an added element in the compositions, along with the trunks and branches, arrangements of squares and rectangles, bands of color, and collage. At first they seemed extraneous, unnecessary. But after our recent studio visit, and his explanation of the process by which he came to choose the words, starting out with chance but ending up with carefully chosen elemental words (earth, water, fire, CO2, etc.), I have really come to appreciate them more, especially the relationship of the words not so much to nature and environment—though there is that, too, of course—but their relationship to the literal materiality of the paintings: the dry pigments he crushes into powder are chunks of colored earth, the blocks of beeswax are a solid (and a surprisingly durable one once a painting is finished) at air temperature that is liquified and mixed with the powdered pigment on a palette surface of lightbulb-heated sheet metal, solidifies instantly (much faster than pigment in wet fresco plaster, though there is a time limit on that process, too), and can be reliquified indefinitely for reworking by the deft application of other forms of “fire” (hot air from a heat gun, flame from a butane torch). The paintings with the stenciled words are made with fire of the stuff of earth and nature (mineral and animal: the pigments and the bees), depict nature more or less abstractly (mostly vegetable: the trees and, in more recent works, flowers), and refer to it linguistically, all at the same time.

But the works I love most in this show at Big Orbit, I am happy to report, are the most recent ones, whether oil on large rolled canvases or encaustic on panels, whether actual diptychs or diptych-like, whether relatively realistic (as in the ones with bright green pine brushes) or highly formalized. I love the purity of color of the new ones, especially their backgrounds (although nothing matches the red in the 1996 diptych “Haven”), the new introduction of more fragile flower petal forms amidst the gridwork of branches, the sense of locality in titles like “NY Pines,” “Hoyt Lake,” and “Griffis Pine.”

Buffalo’s abundant waterways brought industry (grain and electricity and steel), and the decline of industry left the rust (iron + water + air) by which we are now known, but rust is also a pigment, and Buffalo is also ever green, and we see in this show how fortunate we are to have industrious and rust-inspired artists like this master of earthen pigments, heat-softened surfaces, air-cooled solidity, and sylvan abstraction.

Download Exhibition Catalogue

Visit the Current CEPA Gallery Website