Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Jake Berthot: recent paintings, through Feb 19th @ Betty Cuningham Gallery, c

Betty Cuningham Gallery

Jake Berthot has always had a reputation as a painters painter. He's a veteran who's never been an art star, but if you mention his name to any serious painter the response will undoubtedly be wide eyed admiration. If not, then they're not as serious as they think they are. He made his reputation by creating intuitively felt, moderately sized, non-representational paintings, with very thick, multi layered surfaces. These paintings usually contained some visual anchor such as a lozenge or rectangle form somewhere near the middle of the image, and were painted in a commitedly non objective manner. I always felt like those paintings, because of their clear cut figure ground relationship had one foot (or at least a few toes) in representational image making. Then, sometime in the late 90's Berthot began painting landscapes. In hindsight this makes perfect sense, but it was also a pretty bold move for an established non -representational artist, and at that point, a commercially successful one now entering his late 50's.
There are 13 paintings in this show (not including the two behind the desk), and two drawings. All are landscapes except for one still life. The press release claims that there are two still life's, but the second one must have been hiding when I was there, cause I only saw the one. It's of a scull and a vase arranged on a table. This clearly Cezanne inspired image, while the most specific and clearly recognizable in the show, paradoxically is most reminiscent of his early non-representational work in the fixation on, and handling of the figure ground relationship. The landscapes are less specific. They seem to be more references to trees, and mountains, and of light permeating mist than actual depiction's of them. His colors are, as always beautiful and evocative. Rembrandtesque is the best word I can think of to describe his dark atmospheric pallet as well as his elegant handling of the medium. But, he's referencing a lot of older romantic landscape painters with this work. Rembrandt is just the first that comes to mind. But, the genre is so broad I suppose you could find references from Van Ruisdael, to J.M.W.Turner, to Albert Pinkham Ryder. More interestingly though is how the relationship between form and ground in these paintings moves from indefinite to virtually nonexistent. This is a characteristic organic to the medium of landscape painting, and may be what drew Berthot to it in the first place. It challenged his conventional way of working, and forced him to see things differently; to in some ways reinvent himself.
If you're at all familiar with his early work you will recognize some of the sensibilities and devices he's become known for. In some ways he's a loyal modernist, and is still very conscious of the physical integrity of the painting. All the paintings in the show seem to be physically heavy objects that insist on being recognized literally, even if the subject matter is figurative. One device that's carried over from his early work is the use of thin wooden frames applied to the sides of the canvas before (or possibly during) the painting process. The paint frequently travels from the image onto the frames indicating that they're not afterthoughts. This not only draws attention to the painting as a physical object, but seems to contain the image; locking the viewers, and possibly the artists eyes in. A lot of painters have used some internal framing device, but for different reasons. Giacometti did something similar, but with a painted line and not a literal frame. Another indication of formal abstraction is his use of an underlying grid. This is only clearly visible in one painting and the two drawings, but the suggestion is that it's buried under the pigment of most, if not all of the others. This delicate balancing act Berthot has been playing between modernism and romanticism has served over the years as the primary content of his work. With these recent paintings the artists emotional connection to the landscape, or maybe to the practice and history of landscape painting threaten to drown out his modernist sensibilities. I don't know if that's a good thing or not, but I guess that's just his path to walk.