Mountains Made of Paper: Saul Becker’s Dead Reckoning

Svalbard is an unincorporated Norwegian archipelago that resides in the Arctic Circle, between continental Norway and the North Pole.  While its indisputable date of discovery surrounds a Dutchman’s search for the Northern Sea Route, in 1596, Scandinavians may have found it as early as the twelfth century.  In either case, a human presence made its way into this distant, arctic land filled with fjords, mountains, polar bears and arctic foxes, through a history of interactions ranging from whaling, explorations and coal mining, to the last armed German military unit’s surrender, after World War II. Svalbard is also now the site of The Arctic Circle residency program, where Tacoma artist Saul Becker (NAP #49) took in the landscapes that became part of his new show, Dead Reckoning, while aboard a grand, 120-foot schooner. — Erin Langner, Seattle Contributor


Saul Becker | Folding Coastline, 2012, watercolor, ink and gouache on paper, 29.5 x 41.5 in. Image courtesy of Prole Drift.


Saul Becker | Arctic Series #234, 2011, watercolor, ink, gouache and transfer on paper, 6.75 x 5.625 in. Image courtesy of Prole Drift.

The schooner is the only obvious sign of human life among the cloud of small works on paper that dominates Dead Reckoning, at Seattle’s Prole Drift gallery, which proves to be very much at odds with the intrinsic humanness of the show. Referring to them simply as “drawings,” Becker digitally manipulates these photographic transfers and then treats them with watercolor, gouache and ink.  Not only imbued with a forthright sense of the artist’s hand through this intricate process, the works’ images also reveal compositions tenderly assembled by a human eye.  Despite the remoteness of this unfamiliar place that relatively few people will ever see, and the absence of people or context within the frames, Becker’s collection of mountain portraits flushed with soft washes of color has the intimacy of postcards, in their ability to make a generic photograph highly personal through a story told in the carefully considered fragments that limited space dictates.


Saul Becker | Arctic Series #242, 2011, watercolor, ink, gouache and transfer on paper, 8 x 7.625 in. Image courtesy of Prole Drift.


Saul Becker | Dead Reckoning installation view. Image Courtesy of Pole Drift.

A second collection of drawings in Dead Reckoning that resulted from another residency, among the more familiar terrain of New York’s Catskills, gives a micro counterpoint to the macro landscapes of the arctic.  Offering a compilation of the details most would recognize from a typical mountain excursion—mushrooms, rainwater puddles, a fallen hummingbird—these works can at times border on sentimental, but when paired with the arctic series, strike an uncanny balance, not unlike those that provoke marvel in the natural world. The commonness embedded into the experience of finding brown mushrooms and decaying wildlife brings out the personality layered into the collection of mountains and coastlines; knowing the smaller version makes the larger more alluring.  One gets the sense that this sensibility—the desirability of the unknown adventure—is what brought people to Svalbard in the first place, and are what gives its rugged terrain a future as delicate as a paper drawing.


Saul Becker | Arctic Series #132, 2011, watercolor, ink, gouache and transfer on paper, 3.625 x 4.625 in. Image courtesy of Prole Drift.


Saul Becker | Arctic Series #240, 2011, watercolor, ink, gouache and transfer on paper 3 x 3.75 in. Image courtesy of Prole Drift.


Saul Becker | Dead Reckoning installation view. Image Courtesy of Pole Drift.

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Dead Reckoning is on view at Prole Drift gallery in Seattle, WA through April 26. Saul Becker lives and works in Tacoma, WA.  He received his BFA from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, in Canada, and his MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University. Becker has received numerous awards and residencies, including a New York Foundation of the Arts Fellowship in Painting, a Bemis Center residency, and an Artist Trust Fellowship, among others. His work has been exhibited nationally and internationally, including shows in New York, NY; Santa Fe, NM; Los Angeles, CA; and Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Erin Langner is a writer and museum professional based in Seattle, WA

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