In the zone: recent paintings by Judith Belzer

George Lawson
Feb 12, 2016 12:40AM

In 2014 Judith Belzer was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship and the following year she used the proceeds to finance an inquiring trip to the Panama Canal, in order to further her investigations into what she has called the Edgelands, the places where the natural and man-made worlds collide. Perhaps nowhere is this incursion more salient than in this zone where commerce has cut through a continent, but regardless of what position Belzer may hold on ecology, she is a painter, not a polemicist. She went for the visuals, and judging from the work she has done since returning, she found them in abundance. On several occasions, Belzer was taken in a  tug boat right out under the huge bows of the commercial barges that sit waiting to transverse the canal. She saw the vast steel curves extending up out of the flat plane of the water, and she appears to have been duly inspired to emulate this projection, given that the bend of her stroke all but jutts off the surface of her painting. Everywhere she saw the locked horns of stell grid and truss against foliage and embankment, the energies of the high seas funneled through the gates of trade, and this juice translated into an electrified palette, the stimulus eliciting the response.

I’ve written before about the rapid evolution of Belzer’s painting over the course of a few short years, from an attenuated but comparatively conventional landscape mode to one dealing with raw energies that seem to challenge the very capacities of paint. In the course of this trajectory, Belzer’s vantage in her series such as Order of Magnitude and Paths of Desire runs the gamut from aerial views to crystalline and cellular perspectives, all in her bid for intimacy with the natural order. Now, in some fundamental way she seems to have come full circle, with her perspective returning to the world as taken in by someone scanning the horizon. The Canal Zone group offers a sojourner’s point of view. These newer works take on the perspective of sea level. Pushed even further, though, are Belzer’s assured open brushwork and the thin washes she uses in her conflation of matter and energy. Belzer continues to use oil paint at times like watercolor and at times like colored pencil, folding her surfaces in ribbons of thin wash and sharply meandering line, never more radically than in the Broken Geometry paintings. When asked about her path, she responds,

“...I think there has been a profound shift in the perspective of my work. Over time, the lens through which I studied and thought about the natural world and our human relationship to it telescoped out to take in a broader, more fully encompassing view, one that included not only the near at hand natural landscape but also the man-made one being erected around the planet. As I lifted my gaze up to consider this wider perspective, my handling of paint and the way I thought about how to make paintings also took a turn. What I saw out there was agitating and energizing at the same time and this is reflected in the newer work. If I were to try to construct the narrative of how I got from there (ever more tightly constructed, limited palette explorations of the natural world up close) to here (high energy evocations of the anthropocene using amped up color and an active kind of mark making/drawing with paint) I could probably construct a fairly rational step by step process. But perhaps my work just sort of jumped the tracks at a certain point and took a more dramatic turn. I left home metaphorically and literally and looked further afield—moved out from a sort of interior, personal world to take a look at what lays far beyond my doorstep, using paint and canvas as my preferred mode of transportation.”

Even taken independently of her imagery’s trajectory over the years, the immediate impression Belzer’s paintings leave is of an explosion, the surfaces blown wide open into thin ribbons floating in space, painting as dissolution. This is as true of the color as the drawing, with highly keyed reds, yellows and blues denoting forms of the most tenuous connection. Her note of an anthropocene era is apt, the term referencing our current interval, in which conditions of geological scale are altered, perhaps defined, by human intervention. There is a contradiction inherent in this idea commiserate with Belzer’s handling of paint, an almost bipolar grip and release, yet in turning to sheer energy as the motif for grappling with the visual impact of all this change, she finds the right focus and with it a kind of resolution.  Again coming full circle, what I wrote to end her 2008 catalog essay for The Inner Life of Trees series still holds: Judith Belzer seems to understand in her painter’s bones what a swinging gate the observed world around us really is. The canal zone is as much a connection as an interruption, and as painter’s motifs go, as much a ressurection as a crucifixion. Belzer brings as much fervor to her grappling with the double edge of our dominence and vulnerability as the old masters did to their grappling with religion, in both instances seeking a visual compass for our place in the world.

George Lawson