Artist David Beck is what you call a detail-oriented sort of guy.
His sculptures and installations – which feature impossibly exacting designs and tiny articulated parts – have earned Beck a formidable reputation among curators and collectors. But in the mainstream art world, Beck’s work has largely flown under the radar.
That may change with the release of the new film “Curious Worlds: The Art & Imagination of David Beck,” premiering this weekend at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham. Directed by Chapel Hill filmmaker Olympia Stone, “Curious Worlds” is a fascinating and revealing study of an extraordinary artist at work.
A technical challenge
Beck’s sculptures kind of have to be seen to be believed. “Curious Worlds” opens with fantastic images of one of Beck’s most ambitious works – the kinetic mixed-media sculpture “Movie Palace,” currently in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.
Several years in the making, the sculpture recreates in miniature the nearly extinct magic of old-time cinema theaters. Each moviegoer inside the theater is hand-sculpted – many with moving parts – while King Kong and Fay Wray come to flickering life on the “screen.”
The level of detail is astonishing, and one of the strengths of Stone’s film is the way the camera reveals elements of the work that otherwise would be hard to appreciate, or even register.
Speaking from her home in Chapel Hill, Stone said that filming the art was a technical challenge.
“Yeah, it takes a special lens to really get in there,” she said with a laugh. “There are so many surface textures and reflections that are almost impossible to film. Luckily, I was working with people who really know what they’re doing.”
The intimacy in Stone’s film isn’t restricted to the carefully composed images. The director’s father, Allan Stone, was Beck’s art dealer for many years and an accomplished collector himself.
“I’ve actually known David since I was about 7 years old,” Stone said. “I grew up literally surrounded by thousands of art works, but David’s work was the stuff that really inspired me.”
A connection to subjects
Stone’s lifelong friendship with her subject helps inform other elements of the film, in particular the archival material chronicling Beck’s years as a starving artist in New York City in the 1970s. Some of the photos are taken directly from her family’s albums.
Interviews with friends, colleagues and curators establish Beck’s bonafides in the art world – he’s been exhibited around the world in more than 40 solo and group shows. But the film’s most captivating passages simply depict the prolific artist at work in his San Francisco home, surrounded by his creations and the tools of his trade.
Beck himself comes across as thoughtful, friendly and quietly funny. For instance, the artist’s go-to response when he’s asked about inspiration is that he has a book called “Ideas for Skinny Sculptors.”
“David has a very wry, dry sense of humor,” Stone said. “That’s a classic David joke.”
Stone’s close relationship with her subject, along with the careful camera work, result in a film that reveals quite a lot about both art and artist.
“Having the art in my home, I was able to get up close and personal with it,” Stone said. “And I think the film does that in a way, too. Even if you were to go see it at the Smithsonian, you couldn’t get this close.”
‘Amazing and transporting’
“Curious Worlds” is Stone’s third documentary film focused on the realm of fine art, and her first to screen at the Full Frame festival. The world premiere is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Friday at the fest’s central venue, the 975-seat Fletcher Hall at the Carolina Theatre.
Stone – who moved to Chapel Hill nine years ago after working in Boston and New York – has attended Full Frame yearly and said she’s thrilled to finally be presenting her own work at the festival.
“For me, I feel like I got into Harvard,” she said. “I think it’s a really important film festival, and it feels great to be a part of it. It’s really unique. It’s very prestigious but also very friendly.”
Friday’s screening will also be a reunion for the director and her subject: David Beck is flying out for the event and will participate in a question-and-answer session following the screening.
Stone said she’s particularly excited to have Beck in attendance for the world premiere of her movie about his art – 30-some years after their initial acquaintance.
“As a kid, I wanted to do what he did,” she said. “I thought it was so amazing and transporting. And I still love his work. It still makes me feel exactly the same way.”
‘Curious Worlds’ at Full Frame
“Curious Worlds: The Art & Imagination of David Beck” screens at 1:30 p.m. Friday in Fletcher Hall at Carolina Theatre, with a filmmaker Q&A to follow. More info at fullframefest.org.