It’s an à propos question. Artist Mark Beard may not “contain multitudes,” as Walt Whitman would say, but he is at least six different people. “I always wished I had a gay great-uncle,” says Beard, speaking from his studio in Paris, “so I made one up.” The result is Bruce Sergeant (note the initials), the artist whose work is at Angela Russo Fine Art at the Karilon Gallery through September 16.
But Bruce Sargeant isn’t the only artist in Beard’s repertoire.
This is no novelist writing different genres under various pen names: the artists Beard has invented live, or have lived, full, detailed lives (there are even photographs of each of them, Beard transforming himself into riotously different looks). Sargeant, the erstwhile gay uncle (whose name is a combination takeoff on both John Singer Sargeant and Bruce Weber) was born in 1898 and died in a “tragic wrestling accident” in 1938. “I had to kill him off before World War II,” says Beard. “He would never have survived fascism.”
Sergeant studied at the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art, where he apprenticed with another Beard persona, Beaux-Art painter Hippolyte-Alexandre Michallon (note again the initials). “And he had to have a circle of friends,” says Beard, so along came Edith Thayer Cromwell (a continuation, as her initials indicate), with whom Beard has had a lot of fun: “she’s an upper-class girl, someone who could survive the war,” he says. “She’s very Ecole de Paris, very Frenchy/Bloomsbury,” though she is in fact an American avant-gardist.
It was at the Slade that Sargeant and Cromwell met up with German expressionist Brechtolt Steeruwitz, whom Beard characterizes as “dreadful.”
A third generation is starting to emerge as well: “having a black artist around is so now,” says Beard, so naturally he bestowed the correct initials on Peter Coulter. And there’s another yet-unnamed persona in the mix, a transgender performance artist. We’ll have to wait to meet that one.
“It’s really just an elaborate conceptual art game,” says Beard, who has at times offended those confusing the game with real life. “About 20 years ago, Ralph Lauren wanted some of my pictures,” he remembers. “His representative came over, looked at all the pictures on the wall, said they’d take them all. But at the point of sale I made sure that he understood that the artist didn’t exist, as one has to. He stomped out; he was furious.”
Sargeant got Beard into trouble later, when a joint show was curated in Berlin featuring Sargeant’s famous paintings of the 1936 Olympics along with photographs by his great-nephew. “I was in the back of a taxi with this art critic,” Beard says. “When he found out the truth, he made them stop the car and he got out; he didn’t even want to be in the same space as me.”
Most people, however, enter into the spirit of the thing. “It’s a fun game to play,” says Beard. “I’m always asking others to participate, and they do.” Behind the game, though, lies a very real issue: how does an artist move from one genre to another without losing artistic integrity… or without losing an audience?
Beard is a great case study, as his creativity flows in many different directions, even without taking on additional artists past and present. Did he create the personas so that he could do different art, or did he do different art so that he could create the personas? He thinks about it. “A bit of both,” he says.
Beard never remembers a time when he wasn’t painting. “I have three brothers, and we’re all artistic. We were always painting, or playing the piano, or writing poetry,” he recalls. “Our father was an older man, and he always wanted his kids to be artists.” Beard’s brothers chose other professional paths: business, law, medicine. “I think my father is the only parent who was disappointed that his sons didn’t all become artists, and went different ways instead,” he says.
Quickly, though, it seemed that Beard wasn’t easily pigeonholed. He is a noted set designer, doing more than 20 sets in a 10-year period in London, New York City, Frankfurt, Vienna, and Cologne. He’s a sculptor. He does work in bronze, drawing, ceramics, prints, paint, and more, and his work had been exhibited worldwide.
But it always comes back to his people. “Commercial success comes with an artist having one recognizable style,” he says. And he is certainly successful: his work (murals, friezes, bronze sculptures) is in Abercrombie & Fitch’s flagships stores. Being able to pair a style with a persona enables Beard to experiment, giving him freedom of expression and obviously a lot of fun.
But is it a parody? If so, it’s an elegant one. They’re all exhibiting at the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature in Paris right now, and the president of the Picasso Museum has created a mockumentary on Edith Thayer Cromwell’s life and work. “My own style is ironic and political,” says Beard. “Think of a show I did back in 2005—Gracious Dictators’ Homewares. Furniture, dishes, flags.”
And for Provincetown? Sargeant’s style is immediately recognizable: “archly homoerotic,” reads the description from Beard’s book Bruce Sergeant and his Circle: Figure and Form, Beard’s alter-ego celebrates the male figure through strong brushwork that is reminiscent of the period in which he (supposedly) painted.
So… what happens when Beard wants to create something new by one of his deceased personae? “That’s easy,” he says and laughs. “I have an endless attic!”
Mark Beard’s work as Bruce Sargeant is on view at Angela Russo Fine Art at the Karilon Gallery, 447 Commercial St., Provincetown, through September 16. There will be a reception Friday, September 2, 7 – 9 p.m. For more information call 617.233.9234.