Altered Estates

Deer Isle artist Jeffery Becton creates surreal places from the bits and bytes of real ones.

By Grace-Yvette Gemmell
The philosopher Alfred Korzybski (surely you’re familiar) once declared, “The map is not the territory” — a warning not to confuse representations of things with actual things. But in art, sometimes the map is the territory. In the hands of Deer Isle artist Jeffery Becton, the abstraction of a scene becomes a scene itself, the real conflated with the hyper-real.

Becton describes his blend of photography, painting, and photo manipulation as “digital montage.” He was an early adopter of both digital photography and Adobe Photoshop in the early 1990s, and as the mash-up/remix wave washed over pop culture, Becton was on the forefront of bringing these techniques to fine art. Trained in photography and design at the Yale School of Art and Architecture, the New Jersey–raised artist starts with a scanned photograph (of his own taking), then begins the real work of adding new, dreamlike layers — sometimes using digital tools and other scanned materials, sometimes using paint and brushes.

A Blue Hill summer resident since childhood, Becton moved to Deer Isle in 1978 and draws inspiration from his surroundings, from classic New England architecture and the rockbound coast. In many of the works on display in The View Out His Window (and in his mind’s eye): Photography by Jeffery Becton, opening this month at Bates College Museum of Art, these two settings overlap. So a table in an austere farmhouse kitchen is draped in a tablecloth of ocean waves, barnacles cling to rafters, and a chain of islands seems to materialize on the wallpaper of an eerily empty bedroom. The work is characterized by a tension between past and present, nostalgia and entropy.

As various visual cues contaminate one another, the effect is of a kind of tease — but what a lovely, haunting tease. As in the work of surrealists like René Magritte (who, by the way, championed photomontage way before Adobe made it cool), things may not be what they seem in Becton’s work, but they still possess an unsettling, ambiguous familiarity. Erosion is a theme of both Becton’s art and his process: nature eroding the manmade, the digital eroding the physical — each one as implacable as the waves of the Atlantic lapping at Deer Isle’s shores.

The View Out His Window (and in his mind’s eye): Photography by Jeffery Becton opens November 6 and runs through March 26. Bates College Museum of Art, 75 Russell St., Lewiston. 207-786-6158. bates.edu/museum

Courtesy of Courthouse Gallery Fine Art, Ellsworth, Maine

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Grace-Yvette Gemmell

Grace-Yvette Gemmell is editorial assistant at Down East Magazine.