The Fish House at sunset, Captiva Island, Florida. Image: Andrew Beck
The Fish House at sunset, Captiva Island, Florida. Image: Andrew Beck

ArtFebruary 8, 2020

On making art and disappearing in Florida

The Fish House at sunset, Captiva Island, Florida. Image: Andrew Beck
The Fish House at sunset, Captiva Island, Florida. Image: Andrew Beck

Florida-based New Zealand writer Chloe Lane talks to Wellington artist Andrew Beck about life among the Trump devotees and swamp manatees of America’s strangest state.

On New Year’s Eve, my husband and I and our one-year-old drove for two hours south-east of where we live in Gainesville, Florida to look for manatees. When the weather gets cold here, and it does get cold, the manatees swim into the warmer waters of Florida’s shallow springs and huddle together, their large smooth, grey backs visible just below the surface. 

For much of the drive we crossed Ocala National Forest – nearly 700 square miles of protected wilderness – and the highway was pocked with signs exhibiting silhouettes of bears and deer. Just before we reached the park we stopped at a Latino grocery store to buy fruit and a tres leche – what I like to think of as a delicious, minimalist trifle. Near the park’s gate we passed a squat cinderblock house sporting a Trump 2020 flag  so large it stretched from gutter to the ground. The next town over, Cassadaga, has so many mediums and psychics it’s known as The Psychic Capital of the World.

Manatees in Blue Spring State Park, Orange City, Florida. Image: Chloe Lane

This is Florida. Big, beautiful, problematic and surprising.

Another four and a half hours’ drive southwest, Captiva Island is a small barrier island off the west coast. The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation website describes it as a “high-end tourist destination and winter getaway primarily for retirees and families,” while, in contrast, the twenty-acre property of the late artist on the island “recalls the Captiva that enchanted Rauschenberg when he first arrived.” 

Robert Rauschenberg’s last studio on Captiva Island, Florida, which is now referred to as the Main Studio, where Andrew Beck worked. Image: Andrew Beck

It felt a wee bit like school camp but with a bunch of very high calibre practitioners,” was how Andrew Beck summarised the month at the end of 2019 he spent in residency at the property. My last school camp, I was forced to go caving with a broken torch, which left me with two stalactite-induced wounds: an egg on my forehead and a deep gash to my back. Here, cheese- and pasta-making workshops are offered. So what Beck meant by this description was more to do with the Captiva Island residency being classified as an artist community in the manner of Black Mountain College, the experimental college Raschenberg and many influential American artists attended between the 1930s and 50s.

Back home in New Zealand, Beck has been quietly building a reputation for creating sophisticated works that capture light through concrete photography and painting, works that often spill out of the frame and into the gallery space itself. A connection to Rauschenberg seems apt – he famously incorporated wild combinations of mediums and materials, and radically expanded the possibilities of painting, pushing it closer to the experience of everyday life. 

The Bay House Image, Captiva Island, Florida. Andrew Beck.

The nine artists on the island at the same time as Beck – all there by invitation; there is no application process, sorry – worked in close quarters, shared meals, and socialised together, school-camp style. Rauschenberg lived and worked here for nearly four decades, and Beck’s allocated work space was in the main studio – where Rauschenberg worked until he died. Sharing the space with Beck was a dancer-choreographer, and in the adjacent studio a video artist and dancer-performance artist. Discussion between these artists started in the studio, but then spilt over into dinner and beyond, to the point where the practices of Beck’s co-campers began to influence his work. 

“One of the things I found kind of profound about being around a bunch of artists,” Beck said, “was that we all witnessed each other’s process for making new work, which was quite intimate in a way. Normally, at least for me, that side of the process is hidden away in the studio.”

Andrew Beck, installation experiments in the Main Studio. Image: Andrew Beck

The pieces Beck created are titled Fluid Studies. “I made these works by making photograms of my arm moving through water – they were really experiments in motion, the body and time. I have been working with water as a way to show movement in my images for a while, but this was kind of the first time I was actually able to focus specifically on this technique in the darkroom. In those works the water is the lens that the photographs are made from, so my movement, along with the ripples on the surface of the water, are captured on the surface of the photographic paper. It’s a record of an action.”

Andrew Beck, Fluid Body study (arm motions), 2019, silver gelatin print

These eerie images – I can’t tell whether I’m looking at flesh or bones – will feed into a larger project Beck is working on with Wellington painter Séraphine Pick, centring on the digital/virtual visualisation of the body. “Becoming friends with performance artists and dancers was pretty valuable in relation to that.” 

Installation view of Andrew Beck’s works during the Rauschenberg residency open studio. Image: Andrew Beck.

When the works are strung up together, the sense of movement is clearer – these ghostly, dancing limbs. They also make me think about the mediums in Cassadaga. If you could record what they see would it look something like this? These disturbances in the ether?

Art Basel Miami Beach was on during Beck’s Florida stay. In my experience, Miami is best enjoyed from a beachside hotel, the kind where you can see and smell the sea from the comfort of the swimming pool. Or if I’m feeling bold, I might prefer to eat my freshly pressed Cuban sandwich on the beach, but only within the bounds of the hotel’s square of sand, stretched out on a lounger, under a canopy, comforted by a wealth of blue-and-white-striped towels. 

South Beach, Miami, Florida. Image: Chloe Lane.

Once we’ve made it to the beach – having survived SUVs driving at speed diagonally across the eight-lane highway sans indicator lights – then it’s easy to enjoy Miami’s incredible food, coffee, bars, beaches, and Art Deco surroundings. All without seeing any art – except for “Brazillian born, Miami made” pop artist Romero Britto. Britto is everywhere, inescapable.

Miami, though, boasts some impressive private collections. One is the Rubell family collection, which recently moved into a 100,000-square-foot industrial space. That’s roughly the size of two rugby fields. That kind of scale and money can be hard to fathom. 

Beck found himself navigating Art Basel and some of its 269 represented galleries with ‘buyers’ for private collectors in New York. 

“Dealers’ eyes lit up when we entered certain booths,” he said. “It was pretty funny and disturbing having all the subcutaneous politics laid out to me by them. Things like one dealer moving an artist’s work to the front of their booth specifically because they knew the buyers were coming that day.”

The big silly excitement of this Basel was Maurizio Cattelan’s banana. On the last day of the fair, the University of Florida appropriated this work and used a photograph of an orange duct-taped to the wall to advertise an upcoming football game – the Orange Bowl.

The University of Florida – Gainesville’s beating heart – is a big STEM and sports school, so although I’ve been lucky enough to study under some of my literary heroes, the arts world here is much quieter when competing against the noise coming from The Swamp. That’s what we call our football stadium (’cause “only the Gators come out alive”).

Most of the artists in residency with Beck were US-based, and he discussed with them what it means to be a practitioner in New Zealand: “I talked to the other residents about this idea of the ‘overseas’ and how as an island nation we look outwards and inwards at the same time.”

My husband, the painter Peter Gouge, is completing his MFA at the University of Florida. His practice has shifted in part thanks to the tuition of the Latin American faculty; specifically Venezuelan curator Jesús Fuenmayor, and art historian and regular Artforum contributor Kaira Cabañas, as well as access to Latin American art, first-hand through exhibitions and guest speakers, or from interactions with academics.

“Though the contexts are obviously different,” he explained, “the wrongheaded idea of being peripheral to a centre is something that can be applied to Latin America, Florida, and New Zealand – although this attitude is slowly changing, there is still a real fight here to shift the canon towards being more inclusive of non-Western approaches.”

Documentation of the performance Your Island Here by Nibia Pastrana Santiago, Captiva Island, Florida. Image: Andrew Beck.

While he was on Captiva, Beck took part in a performance piece by resident Nibia Pastrana Santiago, a dancer-performance artist. “On either side of the Rauschenberg property there are resorts owned by a company called South Seas,” Beck said, “and recently this company has tried to block public beach access on Captiva, so Nibia’s work was dealing with this.” Rauschenberg was against this style of corporate development, and he famously bought additional land on the island to block property developers. That part of the property is now known as ‘the jungle’.

Chloe Lane’s neighbourhood in Gainesville, Florida. Image: Chloe Lane.

Apparently Rauschenberg’s New York pals didn’t get his disappearing to Florida. I think our friends thought it was a strange choice for us too. Outside of being enrolled in a degree programme – in my case, an MFA in fiction – I can’t imagine anyone moving here for the scene. However, rents are cheap and the cost of living low, the weather is incredible, and we have  many state parks on our front doorstep. It’s an attractive place for artists and writers because they can make art, write and live. I’ve visited a studio that was a converted pool house opening out onto a perfect swimming pool, a writing room overlooking a lake where alligators regularly sunned themselves on the lawn below, and studios at least three times the size of our last New Zealand apartment.

We only saw a few manatees on New Year’s Eve – it sounds like Beck’s boat trip around Captiva was more fruitful – but this weekend we packed ourselves and the one-year-old into our 2001 Honda Accord (there’s also no such thing as a warrant of fitness here) and again drove south. We took a back road, passing live oaks covered in Spanish moss, acres of Florida pines that could just as easily have been New Zealand pines, orange groves and just as many gun shops and shooting ranges. There were a 100 turkey vultures circling above a farm advertising ‘gator jerky’, a side-of-the-road kiosk called The Nut House that sold boiled peanuts, and a store simply called Awesome. 

Installation view from Space Oddities: The Sequel. An exhibition of Memphis furniture from the estate of David Bowie, in Mount Dora, Florida. Image: Chloe Lane.

Our destination was a small, historical town that had the feel of a resort, with all its shops selling novelty t-shirts, blown-glass vases, and soaps, but which was also home to a museum exhibiting David Bowie’s Memphis furniture collection.

This is Florida. What’s not to be enchanted by?

Keep going!