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Judith Belzer receives John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship
Congratulations to Judith Belzer on being awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship for Fine Arts.
"Artist Judith Belzer has spent the better part of the past two decades tracing the interplay between organic and manufactured landscapes. In her latest series of paintings, "Paths of Desire," she looks down upon the convergence of nature and industry from the perspective of a crop duster, creating a semiabstract portrait of the Bay Area from a bird's-eye view. Belzer joins us to discuss her latest series of oil-paintings, and the ways in which the man-made and the organic fold into one another in our day-to-day lives."
Judith Belzer: Vertiginous views of familiar landscapes
May 7, 2014
by: Tracey Taylor
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An exhibition of Judith Belzer‘s new work opened recently at the George Lawson Gallery in San Francisco. It runs through May 31, 2014. Berkeleyside caught up with the artist, who lives and works in Berkeley, to find out what’s on her mind and how that translates into her glorious canvases.
How would you describe your new work?
The newest body of work is a series of paintings called “Paths of Desire.” This is a term generally used in the urban planning world to describe various transportation patterns, but more broadly it alludes to paths that spontaneously emerge as shortcuts between two points. It seemed like an evocative term to apply to the landscapes I am inventing in the newest paintings.
In this work I am engaging with our local Bay Area landscape — a sweeping, highly animated, multi-faceted place where the built environment interlaces with and, in some cases, uncomfortably jams up against a relatively wild one, giving rise to a pulsing network of arteries and passageways through which all manner of life and commerce flow.
Here we can see our cultural and basic human desires at work exploring and pushing out into the landscape with a terrific sense of dynamism, exhilaration — and also barely contained chaos.
In what way does the new series differ from your previous work?
I moved to the Bay Area almost 11 years ago, after living on the East Coast for many years. The move across the country was a shocker. As an artist who has always made nature-based work, I was most surprised by the different sense of scale in the Western landscape. In rural New England, where I’d been working before our move, the landscape is intimate. There I felt almost in a 1:1 ratio with the natural world, and for many years my work examined mundane elements (i.e., the forest scrim, a bramble, winter berries etc.) from this small-scale world up close. The work aimed to invite the viewer to engage with nature directly (we being a part of it), and to reconsider some of our long-held American (and in my opinion, unproductive) views of nature as sublime, remote, unchanging and saved for a weekend visit to a wilderness park.
My work continued in this vein after the cross-country move, but, out here, I felt suddenly shrunken in the face of a vaster landscape made up of comparatively huge forms, broad expanses and the profoundly different perspective offered by the hills.
During the first few years of being in Berkeley I explored the larger forms I observed on my walks around the East Bay hills. I made a lot of work having to do with, first, the very animated live oak trees and, later, with the controversial (fire threat, water guzzlers!) eucalyptus.
Over time, the imagery in my work pierced through the tree bark and began exploring, at an almost cellular level, the inner life of these trees. Making paintings about the lively patterns and structures of the wood up close led me to note how these images could visually echo other organic forms (body parts, rock formations, sand dunes) at a variety of scales (mountainsides, skin tissue, ant hills) and, finally, even the built environment (architectural structure, urban grids).
This development eventually led me to begin looking up and out at the landscape to see how I might consider our relationship with the natural world in a new way. The new imagery I described above, which has been developing over the past couple of years, brought about a dramatic change in my use of color (amped up), the kind of marks I make with the paint and the vertiginous, multiple perspectives I employ. It’s been an agitating and interesting process.
The 2014 Wendy Sussman Memorial Painting Lecture, Judith Belzer in conversation with Poet Robert Haas
By Andrew Russeth 3/26 4:28pm
About five years ago, Lowery Stokes Sims, whom the Museum of Arts and Design had recently hired as curator, was mulling ideas for exhibitions. At the time, the artist Martin Puryear, who is known for large, delicate sculptures made of wood, had a retrospective at MoMA, and one day Ms. Sims went to go see him in conversation with John Elderfield, then a curator at the museum.
“I was struck that he emphasized the fact that, as opposed to sending work out to be fabricated, he really wanted to engage the material and see where the material led him,” Ms. Sims told Gallerist on the phone last week. “Our mantra here [at MAD] is materials and process. A light bulb went off in my head, and I said, ‘I’ll work on wood!’”
The result of that eureka moment is “Against the Grain,” an exhibition of almost 90 works made by artists since 2000 that involve that material. The participants in the show, which opened last week and runs through Sept. 15, range from household names like Ursula von Rydingsvard and Frank Gehry to artists whom one might not think of as wood artists, like Phoebe Washburn, who makes installation pieces; Ai Weiwei, who is perhaps best known as an activist; Betye Saar, abricoleur in many different materials; and Sarah Oppenheimer, whose work plays with architecture. There’s a sizable contingent of female artists who grew up during the 1960s and ’70s, Ms. Sims noted, when women were being allowed into the woodshop for the first time, often only after court victories for gender equality in education.
“There was a common approach to wood that was very postmodern,” Ms. Sims said, describing themes that emerged as she was researching the exhibition. “Things were mimicking wood, things were pasticheing wood. There was whimsy.” One artist in that mold is Judith Belzer, whose contribution to this wood exhibition is made of just oil and canvas. It’s a painting from 2007, more than 11 feet wide, that is part of a series she calls “The Inner Life of Trees,” and depicts, close-up, the grain of a tree trunk. It’s impossible to tell whether one is inside or outside of the trunk. To look at the piece is to feel that you are moving through the wood.
Late last week, Ms. Belzer was at her gallery in Chelsea, Morgan Lehman, waiting for her latest paintings to arrive for her new show, which opens March 28, and she recalled making those works about five years back. She had been painting images of the natural world since the late 1970s, she said, and “I just started going closer and closer up to them. I started doing paintings that had to do with bark, and then went inside the trees, the inner life of trees.”
“Allowing the painting to guide me makes for the most successful work,” Ms. Belzer said. She works without photos, from her imagination, aided by long walks around her home in Berkeley, California. Ms. Sims said she sees that long wood painting as “almost like a stereoscopic view of the tree. It kind of reminds you of what it would be like to stand next to the big tree in Avatar.”
For her latest show at Morgan Lehman, Ms. Belzer has pulled back her view, from trees to whole worlds, depicting cities and networks constructed atop natural landscapes. Quick lines—they could be wires or roads or even streams within a waterfall—cascade by patches of green mountains in these new works, which she calls “Edgelands.” They show “places where the natural landscape and the built environment meet up, and this energy is formed, both good and bad,” she said. “This industry has this incredible forward momentum, but perhaps it’s been a little cavalier, and not thought about.” As in her wood painting at MAD, representation bleeds into abstraction and vice versa.
These liminal spaces, metaphorical and real, where industry, commerce and the natural world meet in fast, angled sutures may very well be inspired by the artist’s own surroundings. “You feel very tippy and vertiginous,” she said of those walks and bike rides she takes around the Bay Area, where she lives with her husband, the journalist Michael Pollan. “From where I live you can see the freeway, port, racetrack, oil refinery, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge and Mount Tampalais.”
Ms. Belzer will also have work in “Drawn to Nature,” a show about artists exploring the natural world that opens April 2 at Wave Hill, the pastoral garden and exhibition space in the Riverdale neighborhood in the Bronx. There she will present new watercolors that at first look like abstractions but could as easily be aerial views of cities or circuit boards glimpsed up close.
Ms. Sims came across Ms. Belzer’s work while making her gallery rounds. She said that, even with the more than 80 works in the show, there were scores of great works that are not included, like Sherrie Levine’s faux wood paintings, and some pieces by Carroll Dunham that have his phallic characters atop wood grain. Perhaps a sequel is in order.
Happily, the show includes a piece by the artist who inspired it. “Martin Puryear contributed a chair,” Ms. Sims said, and then let out a raucous laugh. “Martin has very strong feelings about what craft is, and what art is. And this was his way of participating. He called it a skeuomorph, so that means it’s not really a chair. It’s an object that has the qualities of another object, without it being that object.”
Installation image from Judith Belzer: Edgelands,
March 28 – April 27, 2013. Image courtesy Morgan Lehman Gallery
Berkeley-based artist Judith Belzer’s solo show titled “Edgelands” is currently on view at Morgan Lehman Gallery in New York. The collision of nature and industry singularly defines our landscape here in the Bay Area, and Belzer’s frenetic aerial views capture the sense of anxious energy that defines life in the 21st century. Viewing these paintings feels similar to watching time-lapse film of rotting fruit or tidal erosion- you can’t help but wonder and worry what will become of these landscapes in flux.
Belzer’s work is extremely iconic, clearly referencing Richard Diebenkorn’s geometric California cityscapes and Wayne Theibaud’s colorful depictions of the Sacramento River Delta. Yet where Deibenkorn and Thiebaud found calm, Belzer finds dynamic and unpredictable chaos, defining the energy and beauty of the changing landscape.
If you’re in New York, you should hurry to see the show. “Edgelands” ends Saturday, April 27th. You can read more about it here. Belzer’s work is also currently featured in “Against the Grain” at the Museum of Arts and Design (through September 15th) and “Drawn to Nature” at Wave Hill (through June 16th).
-Contributed by Kelly Inouye
By Susan Hodara
Published April 12, 2013
Ellie Irons keeps her eyes to the ground in her Bushwick, Brooklyn, neighborhood. She is looking for plant life, invasive species that pop up beside tree roots and between cracks in the sidewalk. She plucks what she finds and, back in her studio, researches their identities and their origins. Then she crushes them to produce colors she uses to paint maps tracing their journeys to New York.
Examples of these botanical maps are among the 50 works on paper in “Drawn to Nature,” the spring exhibition at Wave Hill. The show features drawings and watercolors by seven contemporary artists who, through very different approaches, explore their fascination with and connection to the natural world.
Curated by Jennifer McGregor, Wave Hill’s senior curator and director of arts, the show is displayed in Glyndor Gallery, a Georgian Revival-style house in the 28-acre public garden. The artists, all women, range from their 30s to their 50s; their work occupies three adjacent rooms, each overlooking the Hudson River and the Palisades.
One of Ms. Irons’s favorite discoveries was an Asiatic dayflower growing at the edge of a cemetery. “It grabbed me because it’s true blue, which is unusual in nature,” she said. In her “Invasive Pigments: Asiatic Dayflower (Commelina communis),” the flower’s migration from East Asia to the northern United States is indicated by spots of blue painted on a black-and-white map.
From across the room, Mia Rosenthal’s drawings resemble details from the 19th-century landscapes painted by Hudson River School artists. Closer inspection, however, reveals that Ms. Rosenthal’s “brush strokes” are in fact tiny sketches of over 3,000 plants and animals found in the Hudson Valley, each one labeled with its name. Living things as varied as white-tailed deer, turkey vultures, moths and plankton are rendered in different colors and densities to form the scene. Ms. McGregor likened the method to pointillism. Of the drawings, she said, “They’re literally teeming with life.”
Ms. Rosenthal’s practice, like Ms. Irons’s, involves in-depth investigation. “I spent about a year researching, then about a year sketching,” she said, “and then I started actually making the drawings.”
In contrast, Sky Pape’s work is created in the moment. Using sumi ink on handmade paper, Ms. Pape exposes her materials to the elements, letting the weather alter her lines. “I might leave the paper out there in the rain and go have lunch,” she said.
The results are a configuration of splatters, streaks and blots that suggest underwater vistas or otherworldly landscapes. For her “Untitled (Image 9443),” she dragged palm fronds dipped in ink across the paper, resulting in calligraphic parallel swirls. Explaining that her pieces reflect the experience of being in nature rather than looking at it, Ms. Pape said, “I’m more about forces than places.”
The places conjured in the works of Judith Belzer and Charlotte Schulz inhabit the sometimes fanciful, sometimes mysterious realms where the built and natural environments coexist. In her “Edgelands” series, Ms. Belzer uses watercolor to produce whimsical, undulating grids that evoke farmland seen from above. Yet in certain areas lines and colors overlap, creating frenetic tension and even chaos.
Less frenetic but similarly unsettling, Ms. Schulz’s black-and-white, often crinkled or folded images incorporate references to historic upheavals like Hurricane Katrina and the Arab Spring into desolate settings dotted with elements of suburbia. Detailed miniature rowboats, beds, unconnected sections of rooms and an incongruous penguin are placed within disjointed and forbidding terrain. “You can glean bits of a fictional landscape, but they don’t add up to any one place,” Ms. McGregor said.
It is the narrative aspect of Ms. Schulz’s work that links her to Firelei Báez, with whom she shares Glyndor’s south gallery. Ms. Báez’s installation “American Sampler: Aú” tells several stories through five large-scale gouaches of silhouetted figures adorned with vibrant flowers. “I am drawn to the history of the new world and how history and culture affect ideas of beauty,” said Ms. Báez, who was raised in the Dominican Republic and now works in a studio in East Harlem.
Captured from YouTube videos, Ms. Báez’s figures are all women either dancing or brawling: a duo wrestles head-to-head, another engages in a fistfight; one wall is covered by a voluptuous, high-heeled pair of legs. The multicolored floral pattern that fills these forms was derived from the embroidery on an 18th-century British dress. “Embroidery is typically a feminine craft, and it’s usually considered meditative and slow,” Ms. Báez said. “But the gestures that the figures are involved in are more aggressive. I wanted to bring in the friction between the two.”
Samm Kunce’s small watercolors hang above the fireplaces in each of the galleries, presenting clouds in all their moods. Some fluffy, others ready to burst, they are titled to identify where and when they were painted. In “Ljubljana 9-07,” the clouds are low and threatening against an ominous mix of amber and gray; in “Fulton Ferry 5-4-08 (III),” they seem happily adrift in a cerulean sky.
Ms. McGregor hopes that Ms. Kunce’s clouds will inspire visitors to appreciate the natural beauty that surrounds them. “They can turn around,” she said, “and look out the windows at the sky right here.”
“Drawn to Nature” runs through June 16 in the Glyndor Gallery at Wave Hill, 675 West 252nd Street (main entrance at West 249th Street and Independence Avenue), Bronx. For more information: wavehill.org or (718) 549-3200.
Judith Belzer: Edgelands at Morgan Lehman Gallery
March 28 to April 27, 2013
535 West 22nd Street (between 10th and 11th avenues)
New York City, 212-268-6699
Judith Belzer’s recent paintings careen between the vertiginous grandeur of her larger, blueprint-like compositions and the close-up, increasingly flat and microscopic intimacy of her smaller canvases. The cellular, gridded patterns of these latter paintings (each only 10 by 10 inches), derive from birds-eye views of fuel storage tanks and industrial sites that flank the freeways, often alongside the compromised wetlands of San Francisco Bay: those eight-lane highways packed with perpetually congested or rushing traffic that snakes far below the precipitous Berkeley highlands.
The artist’s move to the West Coast a decade ago had a liberating effect on her work, enlarging her painterly vocabulary and opening up her style. After living in Manhattan and Connecticut she found her visual thinking astonished and transformed by the fierce scale, sweep, and sprawl of this new and unfamiliar urbanized landscape.
While it is heady with visual drama, her newest work embodies growing disquiet at the relentless industrial invasion of the natural environment. Belzer’s previous series of paintings, in which she discovered within the internal patterning of wood grain and tree bark a mysterious, undulating abstraction, were uncanny, analytical, close-up compositions. Her “Edgelands” series expands to probe contemporary culture’s uneasy relationship with the natural landscape through sweeping graphic patterning and design rendered as a kind of cartographical shorthand. Line, rather than any overwhelming color, dominates these pictures, while a radiant sense of encompassing light is transmitted through Belzer’s use of a rich variety of whites. ( A passionate relationship with nature has underlain her art throughout her career. Belzer’s early work, first shown in 1996 at Berry Hill Galleries in New York, were realistically observed, yet quite expressionistically rendered studies of the forms of different flowers, fruits and foliage.)
These newest paintings are deliriously complex. The artist’s use of dizzying perspective may recall Wayne Thiebaud’s joyfully vertical San Francisco streetscapes and checkerboard constellations of fields, but Belzer’s tenser vision is distinctly more dystopian than his, breathless with speed rather than serenely static. And though there is some romanticism about painting itself in her works, an emphasis on recording the impact of modern industrial realities represents an affinity with Rackstraw Downes’ scrupulous, reportorial realism.
Her Olympian, aerial perspective maps shifting layers of urbanized landscape where planners, with a heavy hand, have superimposed factories, storage tanks, warehouses and superhighways on the spectacular coastline. Alarm at this ruthless environmental damage finds an echo, in Belzer’s aesthetically compelling recent work, in her over-the-speed-limit trajectories of agitated line. Belzer is an artist whose work grows ever more ambitious and distinctive.
This spring, concurrent with the gallery exhibition, Belzer’s work will be included in two museum group shows in New York: Against the Grain at the Museum of Arts and Design and Drawn to Nature at Wave Hill in Riverdale, New York.
Come by for brunch and stay for a conversation
between me and Wave Hill Curator Jennifer McGregor
about my show Edgelands (up through April 27th)
This Saturday, April 20th between 10 a.m. and noon, conversation around 11
at Morgan Lehman Gallery
535 W 22nd Street , 6th Floor (212-268-6699)
my work can also be seen in these two group shows:
"Against the Grain" at The Museum of Arts and Design, NY, NY through July 31st, 2013
"Drawn to Nature" at Wave Hill, NY, NY through June 16th, 2013
LISTEN to this audio piece
from The Kitchen Sisters and KQED Radio:
Judith Belzer Selected in Huffington Post:
The Northwest's Top Ten Exhibition Picks for 2010
Click the link above to see all the finalists
At George Lawson Gallery, San Francisco, California
Review by Dewitt Cheng
Judith Belzer, ''The Order of Magnitude #2,'' 2010, oil on canvas, 38 x 42''
The natural world was not so long ago considered the criterion by which we judged art: during the nineteenth century, fidelity to observable Creation paid homage to God’s creation (with God hiding behind the clouds, listening in); during most of the twentieth, the creation of personal mythologies would serve as surrogates for lost faith. In recent years, contemporary art’s embrace of new technology, of the commercial art market, and of literary-philosophical theories concerned with cultural symbols led to the general disappearance of nature from galleries. Naturally, there were artist-dissenters, like Berkeley’s Judith Belzer. Her last series of polyptychs was entitled “The Inner Life of Trees;” in the current show of oils and watercolors entitled “Order of Magnitude,” she continues painting the natural world at a remove, finding micro and macro structures equivalent regardless of scale.
Gallery owner George Lawson describes Belzer’s goals and methods: “She moves freely from aerial to crystalline and cellular perspectives in her bid for intimacy with the natural order.” Through painting, that combined form of seeing, thinking, feeling and recording, she explores “the underpinning structures and porous surfaces of the world.” By magnifying what looks like tree bark by several orders of magnitude, she creates craggy, fissured geological landscapes that combine scientific naturalism with expressionist abstraction. They also pack, in the current climate of oil spills and gas explosions, something of an ecological punch, especially here the quaky Bay Area.
Some of the paintings resemble panoramic aerial photographs as readily as they do plant structures, with a deliberate ambiguity. To my eye the works are more emotional than previous reviews have suggested. With their white backgrounds, colored-pencil palette, and zippy graphic energy, the oils resemble colored pencil drawings made by lapsed Impressionists suffering from a certain Expressionist anxiety — like Van Gogh or Munch. With their high vantage points, the landscapes become all-over fields of energy in the spirit of Abstract Expressionism. With their nervous evocation of fraught inner worlds, they suggest postwar European artists like Henri Michaux and Wolfgang Schulze. A few examples:
“Order of Magnitude #1,” the first of the series, is a large oil presenting an aerial view of flat farmland, the boundary lines receding toward an invisible vanishing point above and outside the painting. The unusual vertical format defies the comfortable spectator conventions of landscape by placing us high above ground, as in a flying dream, rushing headlong “downhill” to the sunlit top of the image, where the incline flattens out; Belzer has declared that she is “interested in nature, not as a remote romantic idea, but something that’s related to our everyday life.” But this landscape is anything but humdrum: it’s heightened and distorted by adrenaline, like Munch’s agoraphobic (and tourist-unfriendly) beach scenes.
“Order of Magnitude #2” is a smaller painting, and without the rush into perspective space of the earlier work. It possesses its own odd subtext however. Depicting a cliff or dam topped by what appear to be fog-laden planted fields, and mirrored by still waters below, it would seem idyllic but for the cold light and the crevasses hinting and erosion and crumbling — and the toothlike boulders separated by dark filaments, like nerves. There is also a hint of the archaeological about this work for anyone who has looked at engraved illustrations of pre-Columbian Mexico; a hint of Romantic ruins to anyone who has looked at THomas Cole or Anselm Kiefer.
“Order of Magnitude #11” depicts tree bark subdivided into a loose grid of plates that irresistibly suggests an aerial view of an urban landscape, of blocks and subdivisions and expressways. The fissures that have opened between the blocks of “buildings” suggest light wells in some human beehive of the future (like those painted by Irving Norman) that has somehow become petrified.
“Order of Magnitude #3” and “Order of Things #4” (named after Foucault, not Lucretius) are smaller landscapes of the now-familiar fractured bark, here traversed by long, vermicular (or scarlike) rift valleys, possibly filled with water reflecting the white sky. Curiously, the topographies are filled with patches of abstract marks that suggest the glyphs that Chuck Close uses in his huge facial-landscape paintings, and the whitish scars might almost be primed gesso from which the paint has peeled, seen microscopically by a restorer. Art may be longer than life, but it’s also brief.
During the Middle Ages, links between things based on appearances were codified by the Doctrine of Signatures. Walnuts, for instance looked like, or carried the "signature" of, brains. Much later "The Order of Things" was the name of a late-twentieth-century book by Michel Foucault that likewise found epistemological coherence, that is, investigated the underlying connections between the manner in which social structures frame our perceptions and shape representations and habits of mind. Judith Belzer also conducts her inquiry, using paint and other graphic materials, into the order of things—how natural processes create patterns that, once exposed, speak of the underlying and connective structures of life.
Several paintings from a sequence titled "Cracks and Fissures" take deterioration in horizontal (lateral) sections of tree trunks as their source. The subject of these works seems for a moment to have something to do with their resemblance to landforms and the organic patterns that appear in maps of cities. Tree rings evoke time. Despite these connotations, the paintings work because they don’t become symbols of something else. The visual associations hover and shift but don’t ever take over Belzer’s studies of the patterns produced by rain, sun, insects and microorganisms on wood.
She records her observations with deft, industrious brush strokes, using oils like watercolors to sketch out her subjects in a range of sienna, sepias, umbers and ochre undercut with various blues. Her compositions are as faultless as the qualities of her hand: she works close to the subject leaving out edges and context so the cracks and fissures arc off into the upper right of the canvases. Ink drawings looking like very simple topographic maps link her work with the mapping of natural processes in Maya Lin’s recent exhibition at the Arts Club. (Janina Ciezadlo)
Through June 5 at Valerie Carberry Gallery, 875 N. Michigan.
WHITEWALL: Judith, tell me more about “Trees, Inside Out.”
JUDITH BELZER: This project started when Christina [Kim, the owner of dosa818] came to me and said that she was interested in doing a project for this space. Her spring line was somehow inspired by my work that she had seen in my studio. And she said that she wanted me to do something that would surprise her clients and her, as well. Because the space is so large and there’s so much light, because really I do two-dimensional work on the wall, I wanted to come up with an idea that would be both respectful of the space and present the work in an interesting way. I’ve been working towards an interest in creating a sense of being inside nature and this provided an opportunity to develop an idea that allowed experience of trees and nature, both from the exterior from the outside and travelling to the inside of trees.
WW: We have two plywood casings and the paintings are integrated inside the boxes.
JB: The couple of paintings on the outside are set into the plane of the outside and are referring to bark and the outside of trees. Then you step up into the structure and they are paintings about the inside of trees. It’s about the inner life of trees and our experience when you walk up to them, trying to project what’s going on inside of nature, and that it’s not an inert thing. It’s a constantly moving, dynamic experience in our every day lives.
I was very interested in using plywood to build the structures because, first of all, it’s from the core of trees and it’s a very urban setting. And I wanted to have a juxtaposition of images taken from my memory of walking outside and juxtapose it with the everyday, mundane material and making a relationship between the construction materials and the painting. I’m interested in nature, not as a remote romantic idea, but something that’s related to our everyday life. Plywood is equally involved in our everyday life as a tree outside our door. This is not a special view of nature it’s about an everyday view of nature and trying to establish a much closer relationship.
I wanted the two structures to have a different feel. One is square and closer to the ground and has larger paintings. This box is taller, sort of more elevated, and the paintings on the outside are verticals and I’ve broken it up into small pieces on the inside. So the boxes have different characters. That was the idea.
WW: Does this installation reflect on, “What’s your connection with ecology?” Is it a new consciousness? Is it overplayed?
JB: I don’t think it’s overplayed. I’m not that interested in work that’s around that has to do with the environment. It seems like people could just write an article. It’s not related to the actual visual experience. I’m interested in giving an opportunity for people to make a relationship with nature so that they can hopefully think beyond all the things that we’ve done to create all the ecological problems. It seems like the first step to think about what to do is to actually have a relationship with nature and see that we’re apart of it and it’s part of our everyday life, hopefully bringing it closer to us and engaging with nature so that we can sort of really think about the issues we have in front of us.
When Judith Belzer agreed to open the inaugural show in the room for painting, I had the sense that everything else in the gallery would just come together. Her painting epitomizes the approach and the values I hope to bring to the program. The first time I visited her studio, I was struck by the poise of her work. Belzer manages to balance a relentless laser focus on her motif with a willingness in her handling of it to just let paint do what it does best, an abeyance of contradiction that seems as natural to her as her subject matter. Nature. I am reminded of Jackson Pollock’s oft-quoted retort to Hans Hoffman when the other painter asked him why he didn’t paint from nature. “I am nature,” he said. Judith Belzer does paint from nature, and for the same reason. I can’t think of another painter working today, with the possible exception of Brice Marden, who so naturally couples linear drawing with the radiant aspects of color-light.
These paintings oblige us to reconsider the term realism. Much will be made of their subject matter, fitting since Judith’s title for the series, The Inner Life of Trees, begs this consideration. They are accurate and revealing renderings of their motif, not just trees but the cracking, open bark of trees, at once surface and core. For all their descriptive detail, however, they achieve a level of clarity in their execution that is even more intimate. Here another pronouncement comes to mind, Paul Valéry’s, “What is most deep is the skin.” The work is nothing if not real, profoundly layered, and remarkable in the depth of its parallel exploration of both nature and painting.
Belzer has not only found a working narrative, a thresold for her entry into the visual world; she has hit on a metaphor for the discipline of painting, itself: a surface life that gets at the depths. More fundamentally, she has found a way to act on painting, to do the deed. The mother lode of her exploration, her true image, is in her paint. The fact she has kept the buttery stuff that comes out of the tube so close to its source while at the same time coaxing stubborn secrets from what she observes is the true mystery of these works.
One of the lasting appeals of painting as a medium in an age of technological imagery is how anthropomorphic it is. Paintings have bones and skin and blush. They are physically vulnerable, and frontal in their aspect. They are like us. Judith has taken this anthro-centrism and expanded it to the natural world, where nothing lives in isolation but always within a wider system. She underscores this inter-dependency, another fact of nature, in her decision to complete an image through a contiguous hanging of grouped canvases, like eco-pockets that cross fertilize one another. Almost every painting in the series is comprised of multiple panels.
Among other formal advantages, the polyptych format helps to extend the painting’s color-light out into the room. For all this expansion, they remain terse in their statement. Judith Belzer’s economy of means is evident in the restricted palette from which she seems to manage such a wide chromatic range. Scanning across the individual canvases tips the perceptual weight of the image to the physical facts, a shift over the iconic focus a single, contained picture would wield. Judith Belzer’s sense of balance is the balance of nature, and of her own nature. The resulting grouping is more than the sum of its parts; the compound image congeals into an expansive and integrated whole, and the bond between the panels strengthens with the familiarity of extended viewing.
Becoming familiar with this series is a rare pleasure. In preparing this exhibit, I’ve had the chance to absorb Belzer’s work as through osmosis, and the more time I have with these paintings, the more convinced I am of how successfully she has tapped into the inherent potential of the medium. Nothing but such deftly realized paint could quite achieve what I’ve described as an abeyance of contradiction, at once image and object, reference and primary experience. Belzer seems to understand in her painter’s bones what a swinging gate the nature that surrounds us is. She understands our integral part in it. Her paintings serve to affirm our place in that continuum, where our inner life is shared, even with the trees, through surfaces that run deeper than we can imagine.
George Lawson, Director
room for painting room for paper