Wednesday, October 21, 2009

REVIEW: Cheryl Betz at Claire's in Hardwick

This is the second review we received concerning Cheryl Betz's exhibit in Hardwick, which presents Vermont Art Zine with the opportunity to offer two separate perspectives about one exhibit. We hope you will enjoy comparing and contrasting the two reviews. And don't forget -- we are always looking for new people to write about the visual arts in all the corners of the state!

Hidden Truths

by S. Gulick

Good art should make you think, and I've been thinking a lot lately after going to Claire's restaurant in Hardwick to view the paintings by Cheryl Betz exhibited there. This is a large body of self-consistent work, especially for a venue not exclusively devoted to the display of art. There are 17 separate canvases and works on paper, all in the same style: abstract works with a pale center which fades to a darker border. A cursory glance would suggest that if you'd seen one you'd seen them all -- the basic format of light center, dark borders appears in each and the muted colors all seem rather grey and drab. When I was there the lighting was more to provide ambiance for the diners than to show off the paintings and the dim lighting obscured what in fact were subtle but significant differences between the individual works and a surprising richness of color which revealed itself with careful observation.

I would call this academic work. The artist has chosen to limit herself to a particular style and palette and has exhaustively explored the possibilities offered within these bounds. She presents several examples from each of four separate series, titled 'Of Veins', 'Isle au Haut'. 'Axial', and 'Husk' in addition to one or two canvases apparently not part of a series. Because there are only a few examples of each series one can't necessarily appreciate what differentiates one series from another --for example, the 'Of Veins' series features a base structure of branches from a stem like the branching of veins in a leaf or hand. Many of the members of the series 'Isle au Haut' have a horizontal banded structure suggesting a horizon or a shore, and there are colored dots in a row in several of the members. Red ovals like expanding ripples in a pool make their appearance in many members of 'Axial' along with some veinlike structures reminiscent of the series 'Of Veins'. And there are other features common to several series which are part of the overall set of rules, of boundaries, which tie the whole show together and make it self-consistent. The dots in rows from 'Isle au Haut' members make an appearance in Axial VI while the ovals from 'Axial' show up in Fucus Vesiculosus (a type of seaweed with circular inflated bladders on the stems). There's no work of which one would say that it's a complete departure from the other works although there are variations in contrast, color, light and dark which separate series from series and individual works within a series.

I say this is abstract work. There are geometric shapes and forms but there are no clearly recognizable objects in these paintings. So it was a surprise to me to learn that Ms. Betz starts each painting with a clear image of a physical structure, carefully rendered. She then puts repeated layers of paint over the basic image, obscuring and altering its original form but guided by a subconscious interaction between her gesture and her original image. I've not spoken to Ms. Betz but I believe her goal is to arrive at a distillation of the essence of the original object and to relate this essence to the object, to the artist and to the world in general. It's an intriguing concept and it brings me to two issues regarding art and its production and appreciation, both of which involve apparent contradictions and which make art mysterious and fascinating to me. The first involves art as self-expression versus communication, and the second concerns whether a work of art should stand alone or whether knowing about the artist is essential to understanding the work.

Ms. Betz describes her paintings as questionings about existence, initially based on intricate structures found in natural phenomena. Her paintings become a dialog between herself, her subject, and her world in which the underlying structures are obscured, reappear, and are again obscured as different aspects come to play a part in the work. The painting as exhibited reflects the artist's understanding of the subject and its connections with the greater world at the time she stopped the dialog. Up to this point the work can be considered as analysis, research and self-expression without regard for the public. But by exhibiting the work the artist undertakes to communicate with the viewer her conclusions on the essential nature of the subject and her understanding thereof. The viewer gets the benefit of the time and work the artist has spent in contemplation of the subject but is forced to guess both at the initial subject and the intermediate steps that have led the artist to her final conclusion. Many artists have spoken of the futility of artist's statements--they feel they communicate best in their chosen medium. If they could say in print what they want to say in paint, they would be writers and not painters. But I must confess I'm not always sure what Ms. Betz is trying to say to me.

For art to speak to a large public it must speak of general truths. For art to endure it must speak of fundamental aspects of the human condition. It should stand on its own independent of the artist who produced it. And yet there is so much more in any art that can only be understood if one knows something about the artist and the environment in which the art was produced. From her curriculum vitae I know that Ms. Betz is a Buddhist who has spent much of her life in faith and in study. Many reviewers have spoken of a feeling of central illumination and of experiencing a sense of oneness with the world as a result of observing her work. I am an agnostic, a materialist, an empiricist. I am suspicious of truth which comes as a revelation without evidence to support it. But I do feel that life is worth study, that there are many simple truths hidden in complexity. There are also remarkable coincidences that suggest hidden connections that just aren't there. One can only hope to separate the connected from the coincidental by careful examination of details.

There are enough details and subtlety in the work on exhibit at Claire's that with no prior knowledge I would feel that there was more there than met the eye. Knowing only the titles I would look for connections between series and between individual series members. Reading the artist's statement I would be stimulated to try to find traces of the original structures which led the artist to the final work. Finally, learning the religious affiliation of the artist I would be on guard for proselytizing; but finding no attempt to convert but only a serious and long-term effort to pursue a novel line of inquiry into structure underlying complexity and the essence of existence, I would go back, reexamine the work, and see whether it would lead me in a new direction. This show runs till November at the Hardwick garden of the gustatory, leaving ample time for the interested viewer to please his or her palate while exploring the palette of Ms. Betz.

Images from top: Axial VII, Axial III