As per usual with the gallery, two exhibits are currently on display in the front and back rooms of beta pictoris gallery, which is located on 2nd Avenue North and 24th Street in the loft district. Though worlds apart on their face, both exhibits are imbued with deep emotional power.
In the front room, there’s twothreefourfixsix, one, an array of works by Brooklyn artist Jarrod Beck. Beck’s works are primarily in pencil on long sheets of vellum, along with a few large-scale pieces of ink-wash drawings on paper.
Lines of pencil on paper seem abstract, but Beck’s works are in fact deeply emotional, even obsessive. Unlike painting, which can only unveil emotion through the power of strokes and scene, a pencil is literally a piercing tool. The force of Beck’s hundreds — if not thousands — of lines has warped and torn the vellum pieces, creating an impressionistic display that evokes barely controlled passion.
The really stunning exhibit, though, is in the back room. In 1979, New Jersey photographer Sonja Rieger moved to Birmingham to teach at UAB. One of her first impulses was to travel to Gardendale and photograph a Klan rally. In Rally, we see both historical documentation of the Klan — terrible facial hair and all — and gorgeous, autumnal skyscapes juxtaposed together.
Rieger has been very careful to say that she’s not humanizing the Klan in press material, but the effect of her photography is to do just that. It’s not sympathy, exactly, but there is some level of understanding, even if it causes one’s gorge to rise. She depicts small men craving the high drama of ritual and the inherent power of grandiose titles like Imperial Wizard. Instead of mere hatred, you begin to understand the level of cowardice, envy and fear that has also been such a key part of the Klan’s history.
Rieger’s photography is not only important for its historical value, but also for its aesthetic value. Simply put, her work is astonishing. The level of portraiture in the rally tells the stories of several people in a single snapshot, while iconic images like the burning cross take on a new level of terrifying drama.
By setting the vain ambitions of the Klansmen together with beautiful images of the vast, impersonal sky, Rieger undermines their delusions of grandeur in a transcendentally human way. Whatever their pretensions to greatness, the Klansmen depicted were as frightened of the gathering storm as anybody else. Whatever the extent of their evil, it couldn’t outlast the calm of daybreak.
beta pictoris gallery is located at 2411 2nd Avenue North. Business hours are Wednesday to Friday, 1-4 p.m., and Saturday 11 a.m.-3 p.m. The exhibits are free and will run through February 22. For more information, call (205) 413-2999.