Stephen Beal

Judith Belzer
Area of Concentration | Recent Painting and Drawing

Published on the occasion of the artist's participation in Asia Society Chinese cultural tour
8.25 x 10.5 in., softcover; 62 pp., 52 color reproductions
$34.00 + applicable tax and shipping
available from the gallery

Introductory remarks by George Lawson

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Areas of Concentration
— George Lawson, Los Angeles, October 2011

I first met Judith Belzer early in 2008, at a party hosted by the writer and journalist Sandy Tolan. A studio visit ensued, and I was immediately taken with her work. This was months before had I even thought of opening a gallery, but once that project got underway, Belzer was my first thought. At the time, she was well into a radical shift in her painting, in its theme and manner, a period of growth that would take her from what had been essentially a landscape mode, into an area of exploration perhaps unprecedented and certainly much more difficult to categorize. This release of energy seems to have been catalyzed by her move to the West Coast. Germinal ideas she incubated as closely scrutinized constructions of the bark of Western trees, in particular Eucalyptus (Belzer prefers the alternate spelling Eucalypts), have developed almost virally over the last few years into an exploration of the very nature of structure itself, an ambitious undertaking. Through selected paintings and excerpts from the artist’s own statements, I hope in this catalog to chart the arc of her focus over the last five or six years. To this end I have grouped the chronological evolution of her work in a series of thematic clusters drawn from the titles of the paintings. We have shown selections from three of these series previously in the San Francisco gallery, The Inner Life of Trees inaugurating our program in October of 2008, and The Order of Things along with The Order of Magnitude, shown in September of 2010.

Through each individual painting and the view of her trajectory that hindsight affords us, it is apparent that Belzer has not only found a story to tell, a working narrative that provides a threshold for her particular entry into the visual world, but that she has also hit upon a metaphor for the life of painting: a surface discipline that gets at the depths. She hasfound a way to act on painting, to do the deed. Paul Valery’s pronouncement, “What is most deep is the skin,” is apt here, as Belzer’s work is nothing if not real, profoundly layered and remarkable in the depth of its parallel investigation of both nature and painting. The more time I spend with her work, the more convinced I am of how successfully she has tapped into the potential of the medium of paint, achieving an abeyance of contradiction, at once producing images and objects, interpreting outside reference and generating primary experience with each stroke. In her own words:

“Over the last few years my studio explorations have led from an up-close examination of wood and its grain patterning to some broader considerations of pattern, scale and perspective. Images based on the configurations in a random piece of wood could evoke, I found, not just woodiness or trees but also designs and structures observed elsewhere in the natural world at close range (water droplets, sand grooves, minerals, feathers, DNA strands), or at a longer range (mountain ranges, canyons, river valleys), as well as, and perhaps more surprisingly, patterns emerging from our cultural creations (the urban grid, parceled agricultural lands, maps, architectural constructions). ”

The Trunk Series and the Eucalypts Series, paintings from 2006 and 2007, depict the surface of trees realistically enough, but these paintings oblige us to reconsider the term realism. While they are accurate and revealing renderings of their motif, the cracking, open bark at once surface and core, they also stand firmly rooted in the reality of the room in which they are viewed; for all their descriptive detail, they achieve a level of clarity in their execution that is as concrete, and as intimately present, as the trees that inspired their making.

In the Trunk Series, Belzer introduces extended horizontal formats, sometimes butting two panels to form a diptych, thus pulling the viewer into a landscape-like envelope. In the next series, The Inner Life of Trees, this strategy of envelopment spawns a string of extended polyptychs, multi-panel works with as many as six canvases hung together in a prescribed order on the horizontal. Belzer’s scrutiny has become even more close at this stage, seeming to sharpen just below the surface, and the polyptych format serves formally as ballast to this subdural effect, ratcheting the painting’s color and light, its energy, back out into the room. The viewer’s scan across the individual canvases, with the staccato rhythm set upby the breaks between panels, tips the weight of perception to the thing on the wall, to the physical facts, a shift away from the external references that a single, contained picture tends to promote. With The Inner Life of Trees, Belzer’s drawing, her line, begins to take on a life of its own, as if following the invisible currents of magnetic energy generated by the life blood of her subjects, as much as the reflected light off their surfaces. This tendency towards abstraction in the form of an emancipated line is presaged in Belzer’s pencil drawings and works on paper. The mode gets full rein in the series to follow, the energy first released in The Order of Magnitude and The Order of Things, but before giving over to it, Belzer delves even more obdurately into the concrete with a site-specific installation incorporating freestanding plywood structures and embedded paintings that functioned almost like fresco in architecture. Trees Inside Out, installed in 2009 in the Los Angeles warehouse loft of design-and-eco visionary Christina Kim’s Dosa 818, actualizes the philosophy behind Belzer’s ensemble cast of natural motifs. She states:

“My installation employs architecture, drawing and painting to explore our relationship with nature. The painted images of tree bark, set into the hand-drawn plywood walls of two, small structures—one squat and stump-like, the other shooting upward—might clue you in to what you can expect to see once you step up and inside. Entering the intimate, protected space within, you are invited to take an imaginative leap into the center of a tree. And in fact, there inside, you’ll find several painted images on canvas that are about wood: tree rings, wood grain, and other patterning that might or might not be recognizable as specifically tree-like.”

Again, Belzer plays with the ambiguity between what is abstracted and what remains concrete since arguably it doesn’t take a leap of the viewer’s imagination at all, as sitting inside a plywood box, one is in essence in the middle of a tree. One of the lasting appeals of painting as a medium in an age of technological imagery is its anthropomorphic resonance. Paintings have bones and skin and blush. They are physically vulnerable, and frontal in their aspect. They are like us. Belzer has taken this anthro-centrism and integrated it with the natural world, where nothing lives in isolation but always within a wider system. Thinking serially, she underscores this interdependency. The imagery in the Order of Things and the Order of Magnitude hints at the inevitable merger or incorporation of natural and man-made systems.

This interlacing is more elaborately embroidered in the series, Through Lines, along with a further stretching of the ambiguity of scale, already well developed in the Order series. The cellular structures encountered at the micro and macro levels flip back and forth, readily exchangeable while mirroring one another.

Convergence reaches a peak in the series Belzer has titled, Area of Concentration. While she is actually referring to trees in the following pull quotes, I imagine her describing painting in these same words as, “...benevolent timekeepers and witnesses of our personal and natural history... the planet’s great respirators as well as emblems of social and ecological stability... virtual maps of time, their intricate patterning reflecting the vagaries of the local environment over time... reaching into unclaimed spatial territory... projecting endurance and beauty, but also a menace and, increasingly, our worries about the future.”

In the introductory remarks to the catalog for our first exhibition, I wrote, “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.” Much has indeed come together in the ensuing three years, and if any- thing, I feel more strongly than ever how Belzer’s laser focus, her commitment, as she deepens and broadens her practice has con- tributed to anchoring the gallery’s mission. She is very articulate in describing her process. The remarks that lead off the following sections are her own. Belzer seems to understand in her painter’s bones what a swinging gate nature is, and she gets our integral part in it. Her paintings serve to affirm our place in that continuum, where the very cellular structure of our inner life is shared with trees, and rocks and even our errant constructed environments, through surfaces that run deeper than we can imagine.