Scary cherubs and bloody wall flowers

Artist Becca Midwood, painter of haunting outdoor portraits, is getting a reputation as the "female Basquiat."

Published May 22, 2001 7:07PM (EDT)

Becca Midwood's little girls haunt the City of Angels like some ragged army of the undead. Cherubs in blue nighties clutch cloth dolls and nap in alleyways or on abandoned buildings. Sweet bloody colleens with gaping bullet holes in their temples stand politely on construction-site snipe walls. Fetching nymphets with gore dripping down their thighs play on busy bridges and overpasses. And redheaded maidens, carrying lit firecrackers in their dainty fingers, keep the homeless company on skid row.

The elder sisters of these apparitions don't fare much better. Their creator, best known to art mavens and ordinary Angelenos by her childlike signature (becca), posts them in some of the rougher parts of East L.A. and downtown, as well as the seediest bits of Hollywood and the glitziest stretches of the Sunset Strip. A seamstress in pearls works her sewing machine in the infamous Belmont Tunnel graffiti pit, a spray-paint-covered area known to every gangbanger in the city. A Donna Reed mother figure guards a boarded-up doorway with a bowl full of greenery. A sultry lady of the evening sits amid the graffiti tags, her green dress hiked to reveal scarred shins.

"Everyone knows who Becca is, don't they?" asks Mat Gleason, the L.A. publisher of the scabrous, influential bicoastal art mag Coagula. "I mean, if I was talking to somebody, and they said, 'Who's Becca?' I would think, 'This person doesn't know shit about art.'"

Indeed, Becca is a bona fide art star -- not in the New York, art-whore sense of the term, in which painters ape the glitterati they so vainly wish to become, but in the up from the street, crafting a legend through her own originality, persistence and sweat, sense of the term.

For nearly a decade, this 33-year-old artist with a graduate degree in painting from the San Francisco Art Institute has made a name for herself by mounting disturbing images of little girls and women in the oddest locales of cities nationwide. Rendered on plain brown butcher paper in Becca's shacklike studio in Los Feliz (L.A.'s laid-back version of the East Village), the artist's acrylic progeny populate the entire metropolis of Los Angeles (and make appearances in Richmond, Va.; Washington, New York and San Francisco). Yet their numbers fluctuate based on factors beyond the artist's control. Pasted to various surfaces, the paintings may survive no longer than a day or a week before they are painted over, tagged or ripped down by enterprising collectors looking for a bargain.

Becca was born in Brooklyn and raised in New York, Virginia and Berkeley by well-educated, "artsy" parents. (Her mother is an artist, her stepfather a former professor at the University of California at Berkeley who now heads an environmental think tank. Her biological father is a writer.) She says she started drawing and doing other art while just a kid. Later she matriculated with a BFA in sculpture from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. It was in Richmond that it first occurred to her to pursue outdoor installations after seeing the work of another street artist she didn't particularly like.

"I decided to try it myself, and I liked it," Becca explains. "The first one I ever did was in Richmond. There's still one of my paintings up there, I think, on an old bridge on Canal Street. If it's there, it must be over 10 years old now. It's just two black stars. One says, 'Grandma nice.' And the other says, 'Girlfriend try kill me.'"

While at VCU and shortly afterward, Becca pasted images in Washington, New York and Richmond, but she says most of them are long gone. When she took up residence in San Francisco to study painting at SFAI, she continued her street installations, to the chagrin, she says, of teachers who derided her work as too graphic and illustrative.

("I don't know if there's anything left in San Francisco," she tells me. "Maybe one in the Tenderloin, but most of it got painted over.")

She stuck it out at the Art Institute "to get that piece of paper," she says of the MFA she proudly displays wherever she happens to be living. (In the past four or five years, she's moved at least a half-dozen times around L.A.) In addition to a degree, the laconic young artist also acquired a distaste for providing anything approaching analysis of her work. She says her college professors constantly pestered her to explain herself, something she's never been good at or liked to do.

Press her on why she's expended so much energy on outdoor installations that are fleeting and unprofitable -- at least in the short term -- and she offers a couple of explanations, one practical, the other aesthetic. On the practical side, working outside has allowed her to avoid the ass kissing endemic to the gallery scene. And she hasn't had to schlep her pieces around to prospective representatives. She's been able to get the attention of gallery owners by making her presence known to the streetwise and by occasionally capturing the imagination of the press.

As far as aesthetics are concerned, Becca craves the found canvas. In fact, what brought her to settle in Los Angeles in 1994, following the '92 riots and the Northridge earthquake, was all of the abandoned property ready and waiting for her work.

In a place like L.A., with its carbound masses and strong tradition of graffiti and murals, a street artist with an original concept and a certain tirelessness can make an impact. After several years of laboring in obscurity, Becca's initial game plan paid off. Journalists wrote about her and her fellow artists gave her props. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before someone such as Merry Karnowsky of the Merry Karnowsky Gallery, one of the best fine art galleries in L.A., took notice.

"Like most people, I came across Becca's work on the street," says Karnowsky, who began to represent Becca in 1997. "I remember the first piece I saw was a lady boxer wearing a yellow bathing suit and red boxing gloves with smeared lipstick and scraped knees. It was on a building which is now a Trader Joe's, on Third and La Brea, right by my gallery. When I saw the painting, I began to ask around, and eventually I was introduced to her through another artist."

After a number of shows at the Karnowsky Gallery, Becca's work sells on the high end -- sometimes for as much as $2,000 to $4,000 a piece. She has a number of serious collectors of her work, and Hollywood types such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Balthazar Getty have reportedly purchased her paintings. Perhaps her highest honor to date came in January 1999 when the national "underground" art magazine Juxtapoz ran a cover story in which Becca was compared to one of her heroes, Jean-Michel Basquiat, also known for starting his career on the streets.

At this point, Becca could stop doing outdoor installations altogether and simply concentrate on her commissions and solo gallery shows. From time to time, she does threaten to cease, declaring theatrically that she's given up on the street. But she always seems to go back to it, maybe because it's part of what makes her output unique, and maybe because it continues to give her an inner satisfaction that her gallery work cannot.

"I don't care about what others think," she says. "I mostly do it for myself and put it in places where I'll see it. It's kind of a selfish thing, even though everybody else sees it. So I do it for myself and document everything. They do conjure up thoughts and memories. Every time I see one, I think of something different, depending on what mood I'm in when I go by.

"It's a little bit like 'The Twilight Zone' when I drive around," Becca continues. "I get the same feeling, like I'm watching a really good 'Twilight Zone.'"

Technically, some of Becca's street art could be considered illegal, just like most graffiti. (Graffiti on abandoned private property is difficult to prosecute, and the owners of snipe walls often allow a certain amount of bill postings, further complicating the issue.) But the LAPD have to catch her in the act, and be willing to place her under arrest -- something that's never happened. Apparently, they have other things to worry about. The few times plainclothes officers have flashed badges at her, she has avoided ending up in cuffs.

"No one ever bothers me," she shrugs. "Sometimes the cops come up. We talk about the weather or what's been happening in the news, and then I say, 'I have permission,' and they say, 'All right, no problem.' It's weird, magical. I'm waiting for there to be a problem."

Thin and lanky with gray-green eyes that are often hidden behind sunglasses and short, brown hair cropped close to the back of her neck, Becca looks a bit like Sean Young or a tomboyish Edie Sedgwick. I know she's courageous -- she routinely ventures into certain areas of the city that men twice her size balk at -- but Becca has a vulnerable, wounded quality not unlike the bloodied gamines for which she's so well known.

If she has some dark secret that inspires her work, it's not one she's giving away. Sometimes Becca includes a pathetic phrase like "can't eat, can't sleep" along with one of her scarred Lolitas or, more sarcastically, a line such as "can't dance." Maliciously, there might be a roughed-up girl in her underwear, with the order "Get me 100 sluts by noon." Even Becca's most angelic creatures, absent any violence, acquire sinister overtones when placed in a deserted patch of downtown L.A.

Why does she depict such unsettling subject matter -- especially little girls who seem to have suffered physical and/or sexual abuse? Becca points to the controversy surrounding the murder of JonBenet Ramsey as one reservoir of imagery that's motivated her art.

"I started doing those little girls after JonBenet died," says Becca. "You kept seeing images of her in dresses. That really stuck in my head. So I started looking for images of little girls and having fun with them. A lot of them have blood and stuff like that. I guess I do it to add some action to them."

When Becca acknowledges the impact her little girls have on those who happen upon them, she speaks about it in a roundabout way.

"I think a lot of people were really touched by JonBenet's murder," she says. "It was really intense. Shocking. And the little girls seem to last longer than a lot of the other pieces, I notice. People aren't in a rush to paint them out. I painted, like, six sleeping women all over the country. And every time they get painted out. I've always thought that was interesting."

Becca's elusiveness has been the source of great frustration for interviewers intent on ferreting out "the meaning" of her work. In a segment of a local cable access art show filmed in 1996, the host of "The Nihilists' Corner" tried in vain to get Becca to admit that her artwork indicated that she regarded the world as a "scary" place. Becca mostly laughed and shrugged her shoulders, saying things like "Really?" and "You think that?"

In addition to being cruelly entertaining, the moment was evocative of the famous scene in "Dont Look Back," D.A. Pennebaker's documentary about Bob Dylan, in which the singer reduces a journalist to a babbling mound of Jell-O by answering his every question with another question.

Despite Becca's reticence, those who have evaluated her work have ventured their own opinions about its unique iconography and significance.

"Her importance is to show that street art is not just this hard, machismo-based graffiti -- that it can have this delicate aesthetic, and doesn't have to be confined to this outlaw sensibility," says Coagula publisher Gleason. "There's more than one way to have an edge."

Along the same lines, Laurie Pike, editor of the L.A. culture-vulture rag Glue, calls Becca "one of the most exciting artists" in the city. "The cool thing about her art is you'll be walking around and see it," says Pike. "Like once I was walking around in Silverlake. There was an electrical switcher box, and she had one of her pieces on it. And it really did kind of make this moment happen for me, like art is supposed to. I really had to take some time to look at it."

Writer Martin Schenk, in an April cover story on Becca for the sleek art mag Super X Media, finds that the "incongruity" of placing fine art in these gritty surroundings is "precisely the point."

Schenk writes: "In these public spaces, passed each day by commuters who exist in an often artless world, at a time when our myths and legends are too often fabricated by fickle commerce, the startling appearance of a painted image, where none should be, is akin to finding a fairy in our midst."

Yet Becca's work maintains power in a gallery setting, possibly because she uses a combination of harsh street imagery with her girlish figures -- the equivalent of putting the Coppertone Girl, bare bottom and all, in a pedophile's dark basement. The best of her work has this edginess whether it brings the street to the gallery or takes fine art to the street. The fact that she actually ventures into urban areas where "nice girls" are not supposed to go unaccompanied, and installs her work there, gives Becca a certain street cred. On a telephone pole or on the bare white walls of an upscale gallery, her work has the imprimatur of the hood.

"Becca's work to me is about girlish toughness and a struggle with vulnerability," says her gallerist Karnowsky. "There's much more to it than that. But at the foundation, it deals with the 20-to-30-something's generational identity, especially 'feminine' identity, and the struggle to find balance."

Becca's best paintings bear the element of conscious swagger and danger that paintings by Basquiat and Francis Bacon share. It's a grandiose take, perhaps, especially about an artist whose works are still moderately priced by art standards and who does not live on the sacred isle of Manhattan. Yet, as Becca's work becomes better known, it seems certain that she is destined for greater things.

Ask Becca what her plans are and she allows that she may move to New York one day. Mostly she knows that she'll continue to do what she's always done -- paint.

"At one point, I wanted to give it all up to study ballet," she says. "Then I started painting ballerinas, and I realized, 'This is what I do. I paint.' But while I'm painting, I can still pretend. Maybe that I'm a ballerina, dancing."

By Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to Salon. He lives in Los Angeles.

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