Betty Cunnigam Gallery April 10 – May 10, 2008
There is something quintessentially American about Jake Berthot’s paintings and drawings. For one thing, he is self-taught, which means that, like Robert Ryman and Jasper Johns, two other largely self-educated artists, he is a perpetual student. In Berthot’s case, he uses underpainting and glazing to build his surfaces, as well as an isometric-orthographic grid (visible in many of his exquisite pencil drawings), in order to locate the tonality, mark, or line. His work is about measuring, as well as being sensitive to, minute differences. As Berthot has written about his project: “I paint small sensations.” This is true of his earlier luminous, often thickly painted abstractions, and the darkly lit, more thinly painted, uninhabited landscapes that have preoccupied him for the past fifteen years.
In 1994, after living and showing modernist abstract paintings in New York for more than thirty years, the artist moved to the Catskill Mountains, where he lives alone. Shortly after leaving the city, he abandoned abstraction and began painting desolate landscapes that, to my mind, are rooted in the panoramic and claustrophobic views he experiences, as well as a strain of the American imagination that Nathaniel Hawthorne was the first to make palpable in the nineteenth century. Berthot went back in time, a phenomenon he shared with artists as disparate as Andre Derain, Jean Helion, and Rodrigo Moynihan. All of them stopped believing in abstraction. In this regard, Berthot has something in common with the younger artist, Merlin James. Not only do both regard painting as something to be constructed out of paint, even as it refuses to offer lasting solace, but they also have rejected all the options that the mainstream art world holds dear because they don’t want to go down a well-traveled road. They believe in paint, and in that sense they are radical non-conformists.
The reason I refer to Hawthorne is because of the seclusion, privacy, and estrangement that inhabits the core of his work. We never learn what the minister who wore the black veil thought. When Hawthorne was a teenager, he spent much of his time alone, near Lake Sebago, Maine, and later said of this period: “It is where I got my cursed habits of solitude.” For a decade he lived in Salem, Mass, where he read and studied all day, and seldom left the house before twilight. Herman Melville, who was hardly an optimist, and certainly had no reason to be, praised Hawthorne’s writing for its “power of blackness.” Melville’s observation is why few bring up Hawthorne when trying to characterize the American imagination; they prefer to cite Ralph Waldo Emerson, particularly his essay “Self-Reliance,” which Jake Berthot has mentioned as being variousness of a painting’s surface and the faint suggestions of landscape, the glimmers we can never quite grasp. We are in a world that remains beyond our comprehension.
Berthot doesn’t make a painting; he retrieves it from the muck of oil paint that he accumulates, as well as scrapes away, trying to find the exact right exchange between one form (or presence) and another. As a result, there are often little scarred ridges on the paint’s surface, which interfere with the elusive optical phenomenon that the artist wants to salvage before it is lost forever. The scars are the result of process and literal metaphors. If the artist finds that he can proceed no further, he will stop working on a painting. Sensation, rather than completion, is the point.
Many observers have posited that the artist has gone back to the Romantic and Symbolist eras from which abstraction arose, which is a fairly obvious reading, but in the end is hardly the point. Others have pointed to late Cezanne as an abiding influence, and Berthot has always been honest about that in his statements. Still others have pointed to the American sublime and the romantic landscape. Despite all these connections, I see the paintings in another way: he is registering his mortality, the infinite darkness that is coming to embrace him, as well as all of us. The gloom is relentless, which to my mind makes these paintings very contemporary. In a world where God has died, and the art world contents itself with celebrating the triumph of materialism and received states of political correctness, Berthot goes right to the heart of what is obvious and largely ignored by all postmodernist theoreticians: while the self may have died, there is still no refuge from time.
While Berthot’s solitude is that of an artist working in his studio, and also of a man approaching seventy living alone, he manages to step aside and let the painting be the object of our attention. For him, as for many others, there is no community, no sense of belonging or being welcome. That isolation is what I think these paintings speak to, and what finally lifts them out of their association with Cézanne, Giacometti, de Kooning, Milton Resnick, and all the others that Berthot has cited as influences. I am struck by the fact that in the face of encroaching mortality, he refuses to make entertaining or appealing painting; he doesn’t want our love or admiration because he knows they won’t save him. And he hasn’t turned himself into a clown or a crank, which are just other pleas for affection. Without trying to elicit sympathy, he wants to look at and feel the darkness until the last moment. He recognizes that the journey is finally a private one, and all that one can do is to reveal what was seen along the way.