Julia M. Becker and Daniel S. Biehl

ARTIST SPOTLIGHT, Vessels, Vehicles, and Dwellings: Julia Becker and Daniel Biehl at Beall Park Art Center
by Ellen Ornitz
from The Tributary, May, 1994
...transparent layering of primordial Minoan amoebas, distorted shadows of X-rayed ribs, futuristic flying boats of primitive hide construction, complex languages of the spirit...

Half-mesmerized by the latest Beall Park installation, I gathered my wits to interview the two artists whose works are on display. An interview seemed intrusive, inappropriate in this magical space. I wished to remain alone with the fantasy tent, odd mobiles and voluptuous collages: the theatre of the imagination! I wasn’t ready to squeeze my sensory experience into a predictable, linear dialogue of questions and answers. Luckily, our conversation was as non-sequential and metaphoric as the exhibit, weaving from past to present, from one artist to the other and back to the work itself.

Vessels, Vehicles, and Dwellings is a collaborative installation of art by Daniel Biehl and his wife, Julia Becker. Although mutual influences are discernible, each piece works independently of the whole, as Julia’s work is distinct and separate from Daniel’s. Yet, their work is complementary. Daniel’s sculpture is skeletal, symbolic, and often encloses spaces. Julia’s work focuses more on the intricate and woven layering of patterns in space — the skin of things. Both artists are fascinated by natural forms, from the ribs of the boats to the prayer wall collage, the language of which could be interpreted as a botanical chart.

Both artists intend for the viewer to be “present” with the installation and have his or her own sensual experience, independent of narrative content or autobiographical references. They encourage the viewer to touch the work, to get inside the tent or slate enclosures. My experience of the collection of work was one of rhythm, balance, gesture and hope.. .what Julia aptly describes as “awkward grace.” The artists are not afraid to make mistakes, constantly pushing boundaries, trying out new solutions. As a result, the work remains alive in the gallery space. I could easily imagine Julia or Daniel jumping up during our conversation, to change a piece, as If the installation were still growing.

The artists have known each other since high school, and have traveled together extensively throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, Western Europe, West Africa, Thailand and Malaysia. Their dwellings included a teepee, a tree house, a boat and numerous temporary shelters. Traveling to absorb new influences and information, their nomadic experiences are reflected in their work about “vehicles.” Julia has commented that during these years of travel she often dreamed of exotic dwellings. Her tent “dwelling” seems ready to take flight, while Daniel’s airborne “vehicles” seem earthy and grounded. However distinct their work is, it is curious that the list of pieces in the exhibit does not mention which artist created which work. Should this be obvious to us or does it matter to the artists?

Upon entering the gallery, we are greeted by Daniel’s odd but familiar flying contraption, Julia’s painted fantasy tent and her 32-part prayer collage. These three pieces are unified visually by the warm tan color of canvas, deer hide and Japanese paper. The colors, materials and change in scale are particularly engaging. The tent is symmetrically flanked by six small collages, three positioned on each side, like poems. These small collages offer an intimate viewing of Julia’s lexicon of distilled images, a selection in an ongoing series. The carving of the recycled frames and the dimensional quality of the collages make them intriguing. Both artists are intensely aware of materials. Not hampered by convention, they use recycled materials, such as Daniel’s slate from discarded blackboards, wood from tree prunings and deer hides.

Daniel’s “Emergency” sculpture disturbs me; the slate box invites entry, but thwarts attempts to enter by using crisscrossed interior boards. Even though the blockades are splattered with playful paint, the message is still, “No entry.” Daniel mentioned that there might be two definitions of “emergency”; one implies a state of distress or panic, while the other offers the possibility of growth, new life. It reminds me of the Chinese proverb, “crisis equals opportunity” — an idea to chew on, but to swallow? I was sorry to see that one of my favorite sculptures by Daniel is hidden in the northwest corner of the gallery. I think of “Garden Spot” as the appendages of submerged creatures in a slate sea, but it is lost behind the tent in this exhibit.

Whenever I see Daniel’s and Julia’s work, it grows on me. New meanings emerge and I get more involved. I think about howl would have made a piece, what I would have done differently, or the same. Their work reminds me of the joy that the studio experience can be. I’m quite sure that I missed much of the intention of the work, but I’m not sure that it matters. Daniel and Julia are both entranced by the contrasts of mobility and stasis. Perhaps their installation describes the human body, which houses our consciousness and spirit. Daniel best expresses the focus of their process in this comment:

"We live in a society obsessed with our mobility, or with endeavors to shelter ourselves from the capricious twists of weather or the economy. If the sea would swallow us we pray our ship, our seed pod, will stay afloat. If the storm grows wild on the mountain, our thoughts are with the cords and fibers of our tent... Our consciousness of the world is eventually shaped by and composed of our arrivals and departures and periods of remaining still; our appreciation of mobility begins at the earliest age, our selves are the ultimate vessels, vehicles and dwellings of our sojourn in this life."

Ellen Ornitz is a sculptor who lives with her husband on Baker Creek.

Vessels, Vehicles and Dwellings
View inside the tent
Items inside the tent
View inside the tent
Prayer Pieces

Prayer Pieces

Prayer Pieces