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Beverly Rayner: The Right Size

by Erin Goodwin-Guerrero

San Jose, California, Spring 2007

At the beginning of 2007 Beverly Rayner received a Rydell Visual Arts Fellowship of $20,000.00 in Santa Cruz, California for her recent work. The award was based simply on the submission of slides; a r√©sum√© was included, but not considered by the panel. There are very few opportunities for artists to be honored in this way. It makes a tremendous impact on an artist’s career. ARTSHIFT, San Jose, thought the event merited a closer look at Beverly Rayner and her art.

Entering Beverly Rayner’s Santa Cruz studio reminded me of entering my long deceased father’s workshop in the basement of a house my 95-year-old mother still owns in Seattle. Better organized than my dad’s basement, her studio is filled with parts of outdated and broken objects, industrial components and unidentifiable fabricated forms in glass, rubber wood, plastic and metal. There are parts of furniture, lenses of all sizes, rusty tools, flasks, test tubes, miscellaneous laboratory apparatus, chunks of wax, frames, handles, squeeze bulbs from extractors and turkey basters, ropes, cords, tubing, pockets, pouches and boxes. My father was motivated by the depression era scarcity of everything, to save anything that might eventually serve to repair something else. Beverly Rayner saves things that are pieces of memory, and history; things that create complex associations and suggestions.

Rayner also collects photographic bits of human history. Family and casual snapshots of people that are documents of human life are often discarded by the handful for unexplained reasons. She finds them in thrift stores, garage sales, and flea markets. She buys them, saves them and transforms them. She may tear, cut them up and collage them into new contexts, or utilize photographic techniques to resize or reinterpret their context or meaning.

In addition to found photographs, Rayner also uses her own color and black and white photographs and alternative processes such as cyanotype and Van Dyke printing on vellum. The medium of photography does not dominate her work, however. She focuses on the content of the completed work as sculpture, exploring the psychological realms of intuition, memory, and personal perception. Her assemblage creations almost always want to say “this is part of a real human life” or “this really affects our lives” or “this is the way we think”.

In her house, next to the studio, Rayner shows works that have come from a recent exhibition in San Francisco at the Braunstein/Quay Gallery, or are on their way to the G. Gibson Gallery in Seattle. Conjurer is a big copper vat, standing on three legs, full of clouds floating in a transparent blue. The illusion of clouds is captured beneath a layer of specially treated plexiglas. The vat is discolored and barely recognizable as copper. The viewer is forced to look down in order to see up, and wants to recall the simple but provocative illusions of a carnival conjurer. The carnival is probably long gone from our metropolitan lives, nothing seems that simple anymore, but the example of reverse psychology still pertains.

Rayner uses the carnival conjurer, the fortune-teller, and the tale of Alice in Wonderland as vehicles to remind us of our obsessions with destiny and the unknown, in both our history and future. In The Right Size (Through the Looking Glass), the small photographic figure of a young girl stands within a real hand-held looking glass, facing us. The girl and looking glass are framed by an ornate dark red shield. It is appliqu√©d with obscure symbols and ritual ornamentation in green and gold. She is trying to find her “right size”, her place in the world, perhaps through magical means or an altered state of consciousness. I am reminded of Tom Hanks in Big, making a fateful wish to be big with the mechanical gypsy fortuneteller on the boardwalk.

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Beverly Rayner: Gene Pool Repository

Rayner frequently questions our destiny from the moment of conception through works that allude to genetics. In Gene Pool Repository, an old oak corner cabinet with three shelves becomes like a closet from which hoards of little cut-out photographic figures are marching forward — people whose names have been forgotten, but who were a part of a great history of males and females, many and mixed races, young and old. They look grand and proud. In titles such as Test Tube Baby, Rayner reveals her uneasiness with genetic engineering and manipulation. “We imagine we are above or in control of nature. We barge ahead without considering the consequences”, she protests. In an as-yet untitled work-in-progress in the studio, two formative women float in large glass test tubes. They appear and disappear between veils and stains. Their faces, their identities, their futures are vague and seemingly in the hands of science rather than natural evolution. Not all of her work is so serious. A series of wands or long-handled tools she calls Household Fetishes fancifully empower women to do something that frees them from their stereotypical roles. Both ends of the fetishes have nearly exhausted implements as in Automator — an old broom, which is matched with, at the other end, a fifties-era appliance cord. Tickler has some tough looking bamboo “ticklers” at one end and an old fashioned lady’s garters dangling from the other. Doer plays a spray of hairpins and curlers, at the bottom, off of hair made from a tangle of small springs at its opposite end. Each Household Fetish has a woman’s face embedded discretely, like a chop mark, into the handle. It is their lot to wrestle with these domestic challenges.

How does her work move from a quirky sense of humor, to profound social issues, to an exploration of dark psychological states? Rayner acknowledges the effect of the unsolved murder of her older sister in 1992 on her life and art. “Linda was a social, noble, active person”, Rayner recalls. Deeply affected by this loss, she made artworks about death. She created a memorial for her sister. On an open photo album with childhood photos of her sister on each page, she placed many roses over each image and drove rusty nails through them. The roses dried and fell away, slowly returning a vision and memory of her sister in the innocence of her childhood. The grieving diminished, and she returned to work with an attitude that made her literally question the value of everything she did. If she could say it was absolutely worthwhile, she continued. She lost the fear of growing old. She says, “I am interested in dark things, but I am not a dark person.”

Rayner credits a lot of influences for her artistic thinking and work. As a BFA student at San Jose State University in the 80’s, she spent part of the 1983 academic year in Sheffield, England, as an exchange student. She found Sheffield loose, energetic and liberating. She went to impressive museums throughout Europe. She felt an openness to possibilities she had not recognized before. She gave up her work in ceramic sculpture and, looking at artists like Man Ray, Bruce Connor, Ed Kienholtz, and Joseph Bueys, began to work in whatever media presented itself, developing content beyond form. It was the realization of a psychological effect, a provocation inherent in the work that moved her. Other artists who have impressed her range from the historic Van Gogh, to the more contemporary Francis Bacon, Christian Boltansky, Robert Rauchenberg, Christian Marclay and San Jose’s Tony May.

Often before choosing to read about art however, Rayner reads Discover magazine and Psychology Today. She is curious about neurology – how the brain is “wired”, the psychology of perception, brain chemistry, and the direction of science, especially in genetic manipulation.

Rayner’s career as an exhibiting artist has been active on the West Coast for over twenty years. In 2005, a desire to teach art was her prime motivation, when she decided to enter the MFA program at her alma mater, San Jose State University. For two years, she has dedicated the majority of her attention to seminars such as Artists Teaching Art and has focused on opportunities to observe the teaching technique of other faculty and to serve as a teaching assistant in classes she loves. She confesses to being impressed with the intensity of the graduate school experience and the diverse qualities and talents of the students.

To this point, Rayner has remained somewhat removed from the standard graduate fare of art theory and criticism: photography as a vehicle for Marxist strategy or as a tool of social manipulation, issues of “simulacra”, truth and fiction in art, linguistics and post-structuralism or the impact of new media. Her art has followed a consistent path for all her years as a professional artist, and to date she does not see that the graduate program is changing it in recognizable ways. Yet she does not rule out that possibility. “One factor is that I take so long to complete most of the pieces I make. Most of the work I am showing now, I have been working on for years,” she reflects. “I think this experience will affect the art eventually. I just keep doing what I am doing. I like being able to laugh at stuff I would have taken very seriously in my 20’s.”

Beverly Rayner credits her husband – artist, designer, and curator Marc D‚ÄôEstout – for being perhaps the greatest influence on her work over a long period of time. They critique each other’s work in an amicable way, (most of the time), she says. She feels that their mutual support is possible, in part, because the direction of their work is so different. They are sympathetic to the sacrifices each makes to advance their careers. They are not in competition nor jealous of each other’s successes.

The Rydell grant has changed things for Beverly Rayner. She and Marc have remodeled and enlarged their Santa Cruz studio so that each one can have private studio space while continuing to share shop space and enough open space to work larger than was possible before. As they clean up the sawdust and reorganize, Beverly is pulling together the new work for her next exhibition in Seattle. She is taking a year’s leave of absence from the graduate program, during which time she will teach a popular upper division photography seminar on portfolio development. She also has plans to create a website and follow up on contacts in New York to pursue new exhibition opportunities. She seems to be happy entering uncertain new territory and enjoying a well-earned change of pace.

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