Director Olympia Stone has an artist’s eye, and she uses it to illuminate the life of art. The newest of her series of documentary films on the creative process comes to the Denver Film Festival this weekend. Curious Worlds: The Art & Imagination of David Beck will screen three times during the festival – with the director and her subject attending in person.
“I am on a mission to get people to know about him,” she says from her home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. “I am fascinated by why we make art.” Stone grew up outside New York City, where her father Allan worked as a prominent art dealer from 1960 until his death in 2006. Her first feature doc, The Collector, is a vivid portrait of Allan Stone’s outsize, obsessive personality and his influence in the New York art scene of the period. It was released shortly after his sudden death.
“It definitely was a cathartic experience,” she says. “It is amazing to have that record of him.” The Collector is a memorable film, providing a evenhanded picture of it subject. A biography of a parent is notoriously difficult to execute. “It was a balancing act,” she affirms.
Stone’s work is consistently top-notch, with a narrative flow and eye for significant detail that enlivens and humanizes her topics. Her next film, 2012’s The Cardboard Bernini, tracked artist James Grashow as he constructed an immense Baroque-style fountain entirely in cardboard – with the express intention of letting it be destroyed by the elements. The philosophical eccentric held forth as he worked, saying things such as “Everything dissolves in eternity!”
Her new subject, David Beck, is equal parts visionary and craftsman. In a time when much art is big and conceptual, he has made a career of building entire worlds, imaginary outposts, on a small scale. In pieces such as “L’Opera,” “Mvsevm,” and “Movie Palace,” he creates highly detailed environments, sumptuously crafted and crammed with tiny figures that move when crank-operated. It’s akin to the work of Joseph Cornell, the functioning toy circus created by Alexander Calder, and the gimcracks and whims of clock- and toymakers through history.
“This is another artist I’ve known him my entire life,” Stone says. “I grew up with many of his works in my house, so I got to look at them and play with them in in a personal way, the way you can’t when you’re in a museum. The film is a way for me to let the viewer explore the work in that same way...I have always been captivated by his work. He creates worlds you can enter; you are draw in and transported to another place. It is magical.”
One of the filmmaker’s biggest challenges was to get in close enough to register the artistic process, one that involves magnification and so much delicate handwork that a major piece can take Beck as long as six years to finish.
“Usually, I keep the costs down in my films by doing things myself,” she says, “but this time I really had to work with people who had special lenses, so I could really get in there and show the detail. Also, David’s work has lots and lots of reflective surfaces, windows, and such, and it was very challenging to fight the lens flare. Also, his works are so elaborate that there are many, many points of entry for each piece – it made it difficult to choose a path of approach.”
Beck’s work has been noticed by only a few in the art world. Much of his work hasn’t been publicly exhibited, as it tends to get snapped up by private collectors as soon as it’s completed. Curious Worlds gives us a look at art that otherwise would be completely unknown.
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“It was difficult to choose what to show,” she says. “Believe it or not, as slow as he works, he has created many other amazing large pieces that didn’t make it into the film, due to time. It’s staggering what he’s achieved, but it’s due to his work ethic. That’s why nobody’s heard of him – he’s in his studio all the time making art. He’s not a schmoozer.”
Stone convinced Beck to make some appearances, and says she’s energized by the festival circuit. “It’s interesting to see how people react to the film,” she says. “Some audiences are more enthusiastic than others. It cuts both ways. It always feels personal; sometimes I need to get out of my own way and just let people take what they take from it.
“But it’s fun, particularly when David is there. I love the questions that he gets. He’s shy, but I think that he’s enjoying the attention.”
Curious Worlds: The Art & Imagination of David Beck is screening, with director Olympia Stone and subject, artist David Beck, in person, as part of the Denver Film Festival at the UA Pavilions, 500 16th Street, #310, on Saturday, November 7 at 6:15 p.m., Sunday, November 8 at 11:45 a.m., and Monday, November 9 at 1:45 p.m. For tickets and info, please visit denverfilm.org.