Dewitt Cheng, Huffington Post, December 31, 2010
George Lawson Gallery
San Francisco, California
The natural world was not so long ago considered the criterion by which we judged art: during the nineteenth century, fidelity to observable Creation paid homage to God’s creation (with God hiding behind the clouds, listening in); during most of the twentieth, the creation of personal mythologies would serve as surrogates for lost faith. In recent years, contemporary art’s embrace of new technology, of the commercial art market, and of literary-philosophical theories concerned with cultural symbols led to the general disappearance of nature from galleries.
Naturally, there were artist-dissenters, like Berkeley’s Judith Belzer. Her last series of polyptychs was entitled “The Inner Life of Trees;” in the current show of oils and watercolors entitled “Order of Magnitude,” she continues painting the natural world at a remove, finding micro and macro structures equivalent regardless of scale.
See complete article. . . .
– Dewitt Cheng
Visual Art Source
Judith Belzer at George Lawson Gallery, San Francisco, California, Review by Dewitt Cheng
The natural world was not so long ago considered the criterion by which we judged art: during the nineteenth century, fidelity to observable Creation paid homage to God’s creation (with God hiding behind the clouds, listening in); during most of the twentieth, the creation of personal mythologies would serve as surrogates for lost faith. In recent years, contemporary art’s embrace of new technology, of the commercial art market, and of literary-philosophical theories concerned with cultural symbols led to the general disappearance of nature from galleries. Naturally, there were artist-dissenters, like Berkeley’s Judith Belzer. Her last series of polyptychs was entitled “The Inner Life of Trees;” in the current show of oils and watercolors entitled “Order of Magnitude,” she continues painting the natural world at a remove, finding micro and macro structures equivalent regardless of scale.
Gallery owner George Lawson describes Belzer’s goals and methods: “She moves freely from aerial to crystalline and cellular perspectives in her bid for intimacy with the natural order.” Through painting, that combined form of seeing, thinking, feeling and recording, she explores “the underpinning structures and porous surfaces of the world.” By magnifying what looks like tree bark by several orders of magnitude, she creates craggy, fissured geological landscapes that combine scientific naturalism with expressionist abstraction. They also pack, in the current climate of oil spills and gas explosions, something of an ecological punch, especially here the quaky Bay Area.
Some of the paintings resemble panoramic aerial photographs as readily as they do plant structures, with a deliberate ambiguity. To my eye the works are more emotional than previous reviews have suggested. With their white backgrounds, colored-pencil palette, and zippy graphic energy, the oils resemble colored pencil drawings made by lapsed Impressionists suffering from a certain Expressionist anxiety — like Van Gogh or Munch. With their high vantage points, the landscapes become all-over fields of energy in the spirit of Abstract Expressionism. With their nervous evocation of fraught inner worlds, they suggest postwar European artists like Henri Michaux and Wolfgang Schulze. A few examples:
“Order of Magnitude #1,” the first of the series, is a large oil presenting an aerial view of flat farmland, the boundary lines receding toward an invisible vanishing point above and outside the painting. The unusual vertical format defies the comfortable spectator conventions of landscape by placing us high above ground, as in a flying dream, rushing headlong “downhill” to the sunlit top of the image, where the incline flattens out; Belzer has declared that she is “interested in nature, not as a remote romantic idea, but something that’s related to our everyday life.” But this landscape is anything but humdrum: it’s heightened and distorted by adrenaline, like Munch’s agoraphobic (and tourist-unfriendly) beach scenes.
“Order of Magnitude #2” is a smaller painting, and without the rush into perspective space of the earlier work. It possesses its own odd subtext however. Depicting a cliff or dam topped by what appear to be fog-laden planted fields, and mirrored by still waters below, it would seem idyllic but for the cold light and the crevasses hinting and erosion and crumbling — and the toothlike boulders separated by dark filaments, like nerves. There is also a hint of the archaeological about this work for anyone who has looked at engraved illustrations of pre-Columbian Mexico; a hint of Romantic ruins to anyone who has looked at THomas Cole or Anselm Kiefer.
“Order of Magnitude #11” depicts tree bark subdivided into a loose grid of plates that irresistibly suggests an aerial view of an urban landscape, of blocks and subdivisions and expressways. The fissures that have opened between the blocks of “buildings” suggest light wells in some human beehive of the future (like those painted by Irving Norman) that has somehow become petrified.
“Order of Magnitude #3” and “Order of Things #4” (named after Foucault, not Lucretius) are smaller landscapes of the now-familiar fractured bark, here traversed by long, vermicular (or scarlike) rift valleys, possibly filled with water reflecting the white sky. Curiously, the topographies are filled with patches of abstract marks that suggest the glyphs that Chuck Close uses in his huge facial-landscape paintings, and the whitish scars might almost be primed gesso from which the paint has peeled, seen microscopically by a restorer. Art may be longer than life, but it’s also brief.
Judith Belzer/Valerie Carberry Gallery
Newcity Art, May 17, 2010
During the Middle Ages, links between things based on appearances were codified by the Doctrine of Signatures. Walnuts, for instance looked like, or carried the “signature” of, brains. Much later “The Order of Things” was the name of a late-twentieth-century book by Michel Foucault that likewise found epistemological coherence, that is, investigated the underlying connections between the manner in which social structures frame our perceptions and shape representations and habits of mind. Judith Belzer also conducts her inquiry, using paint and other graphic materials, into the order of things—how natural processes create patterns that, once exposed, speak of the underlying and connective structures of life.
Several paintings from a sequence titled “Cracks and Fissures” take deterioration in horizontal (lateral) sections of tree trunks as their source. The subject of these works seems for a moment to have something to do with their resemblance to landforms and the organic patterns that appear in maps of cities. Tree rings evoke time. Despite these connotations, the paintings work because they don’t become symbols of something else. The visual associations hover and shift but don’t ever take over Belzer’s studies of the patterns produced by rain, sun, insects and microorganisms on wood.
She records her observations with deft, industrious brush strokes, using oils like watercolors to sketch out her subjects in a range of sienna, sepias, umbers and ochre undercut with various blues. Her compositions are as faultless as the qualities of her hand: she works close to the subject leaving out edges and context so the cracks and fissures arc off into the upper right of the canvases. Ink drawings looking like very simple topographic maps link her work with the mapping of natural processes in Maya Lin’s recent exhibition at the Arts Club. (Janina Ciezadlo)
Through June 5 at Valerie Carberry Gallery, 875 N. Michigan.
Los Angeles Times | Arts | Culture Monster
by Sachi Cunningham, June 2009
Trees, closely examined, are the subjects of Judith Belzer’s latest installation at the 818 Dosa gallery in downtown Los Angeles. Nature has long been the focus of Belzer’s work, but when she moved to Berkeley from New England six years ago, she was struck by the larger scale of the West Coast landscape. And trees “are very large forms,” Belzer said at the gallery. “They’re also the part of the landscape that I relate to most, as another horizontal on the vertical plane.”
In the show, “Trees Inside Out,” Belzer offers various ways for gallery-goers to interact with her interpretation of the nature of wood. (See the video above.) By creating two “rooms” out of plywood, she invites viewers to step into and experience both a macro and micro way of seeing a tree’s patterns, either by looking at the oil paintings that she’s done as a “sense memory” from her imagination or by looking at the plywood itself, which she has outlined in pencil. You can also see real wood on pedestals, and pencil and paper drawings of wood formations that evoke cartographic images of a landscape from afar.
“Patterning repeats in interesting ways,” says Belzer, “and also you find the same patterns across nature in many forms. In rock formations, in water, in sand. These things operate on multiple levels. And I think it’s interesting, because I think it gets to the idea that there’s no one way to look at nature.”
Belzer was in town last week to give a lecture about the project with her husband, author Michael Pollan (“The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals”), and gallery owner Christina Kim. The latter, a clothing designer who uses recycled material in her work, asked Belzer to create a show in her urban loft after one of her fashion lines was inspired by Belzer’s paintings. As for Pollan’s role, Belzer’s collaboration with him has lasted for more than 30 years (since they met at Bennington College in Vermont) and includes a 16-year-old son. Though they may argue about which music will be their muse as they paint and write side by side, you can see the common tie that binds their intellectual curiosity. They each take something that is everywhere in our daily lives — trees, and in Pollan’s case, food — and put it under a microscope to illuminate a larger story.
Plywood, for example, “is a very everyday construction material,” Belzer says, “but yet when you actually stop to reflect on it, it’s a beautiful material and actually relates to you. It’s not something that just magically appears at the lumberyard.”
She likes to play with the symbolic ideas of wood as well. Just as our culture has looked at trees “as these symbols of stability, of history”; as “a place that you go to for a peaceful lie down”; or as a “threat of fire,” she hopes that those walking through her exhibition will see how all these elements intertwine.
“It was just amazing to start to see the connections,” says Belzer, who sees the installation, available for viewing by appointment, as “perhaps a first step in helping us through what our relationship is to nature now in these troubled environmental times.”
— Sachi Cunningham
818 Dosa, 818 Broadway, 12th floor, downtown L.A. Hours: by appointment, Tuesdays through Fridays. Ends Sept. 15. (213) 489-2801.
Judith Belzer at dosa818
By Guillaume Wolf, April 8, 2009
WHITEWALL: Judith, tell me more about “Trees, Inside Out.”
JUDITH BELZER: This project started when Christina [Kim, the owner of dosa818] came to me and said that she was interested in doing a project for this space. Her spring line was somehow inspired by my work that she had seen in my studio. And she said that she wanted me to do something that would surprise her clients and her, as well. Because the space is so large and there’s so much light, because really I do two-dimensional work on the wall, I wanted to come up with an idea that would be both respectful of the space and present the work in an interesting way. I’ve been working towards an interest in creating a sense of being inside nature and this provided an opportunity to develop an idea that allowed experience of trees and nature, both from the exterior from the outside and travelling to the inside of trees.
WW: We have two plywood casings and the paintings are integrated inside the boxes.
JB: The couple of paintings on the outside are set into the plane of the outside and are referring to bark and the outside of trees. Then you step up into the structure and they are paintings about the inside of trees. It’s about the inner life of trees and our experience when you walk up to them, trying to project what’s going on inside of nature, and that it’s not an inert thing. It’s a constantly moving, dynamic experience in our every day lives.
I was very interested in using plywood to build the structures because, first of all, it’s from the core of trees and it’s a very urban setting. And I wanted to have a juxtaposition of images taken from my memory of walking outside and juxtapose it with the everyday, mundane material and making a relationship between the construction materials and the painting. I’m interested in nature, not as a remote romantic idea, but something that’s related to our everyday life. Plywood is equally involved in our everyday life as a tree outside our door. This is not a special view of nature it’s about an everyday view of nature and trying to establish a much closer relationship.
I’m interested in nature, not as a remote romantic idea
I wanted the two structures to have a different feel. One is square and closer to the ground and has larger paintings. This box is taller, sort of more elevated, and the paintings on the outside are verticals and I’ve broken it up into small pieces on the inside. So the boxes have different characters. That was the idea.
WW: Does this installation reflect on, “What’s your connection with ecology?” Is it a new consciousness? Is it overplayed?
JB: I don’t think it’s overplayed. I’m not that interested in work that’s around that has to do with the environment. It seems like people could just write an article. It’s not related to the actual visual experience. I’m interested in giving an opportunity for people to make a relationship with nature so that they can hopefully think beyond all the things that we’ve done to create all the ecological problems. It seems like the first step to think about what to do is to actually have a relationship with nature and see that we’re apart of it and it’s part of our everyday life, hopefully bringing it closer to us and engaging with nature so that we can sort of really think about the issues we have in front of us.
Judith Belzer Paintings
Steve Reich’s Minimalism
Published January 5, 2009
I came across some images of paintings by Judith Belzer at the Room for Painting / Room for Paper website this weekend, and quickly went to Belzer’s website to view her work. Her most recent painting series, entitled “The Inner Life of Trees”, is a gorgeous set of paintings. Over time Belzer’s gaze has increasingly moved closer and closer to her subject matter. These most recent paintings evidence someone who has completely given in to her muse, and who is adrift in a sea of beauty inherent in the patterns of nature. These works recall Turner and Blake, but while those works were visually fantastic in their use of color, Belzer utilizes a cooler palette and rhythmic repetition of organic patterns. Her palette of grays, ochres, siennas and viridian green is simply wonderful, and no doubt informed by photography. While these works read like non-representational paintings, Belzer still identifies these works as landscape, which is understandable. After years of painting, Belzer has come upon a singularly beautiful imagery in her painting. I can’t wait to see what comes next from her.
Judith Belzer has a feel for the natural world
Edward Guthmann, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, October 13, 2008
In New England, where Judith Belzer lived and worked as a painter for nine years, the landscape was intimate, always just an arm’s length away. Home was Cornwall, Conn., a town of 1,500, where Belzer and her husband and son lived in a house surrounded by trees, a pond and dairy farms.
When she moved to Berkeley in 2003, Belzer found that the skies are larger, the scope much grander here. “One of the things that struck me is this incredible shift of scale. We feel so much smaller as a person standing in the landscape of the West Coast than on the East Coast.”
Belzer, who is married to the writer and naturalist Michael Pollan (“The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals”), is an oil painter who makes semiabstract work that captures the moods and textures of nature. Her new show, “The Inner Life of Trees,” opened this month at Room for Painting Room for Paper, a new gallery at 49 Geary St. in San Francisco. It runs through Nov. 8.
The paintings, mostly arranged in multiple panels, not only evoke tree rings and the ridges of bark but also suggest the movement and rhythms of ocean waves and sand. In her notes for the show, Belzer wrote, “Maybe it’s just me, but the idea of crawling along the bark of a tree and then somehow penetrating to the tree’s interior is enticing, even thrilling.”
George Lawson, director of the gallery, praises the “wonderful, radiant imagery” and the fusion of realism and abstraction in Belzer’s work. “Judith seems to understand in her painter’s bones what a swinging gate the natural world that surrounds us is,” he writes.
The autumn light is soft and the air through her window balmy as Belzer, 52, sits in the basement studio of her home in North Berkeley to talk about painting. “A lot of people look at nature as something remote and romantic, far removed from us,” she says. “But I’ve always been interested in seeing nature as an active force in our experience – not something that’s, you know, saved for a nice day when you decide to go for a walk.”
Belzer walks a lot: in Tilden Park, in the streets surrounding her home. She doesn’t take photographs or draw sketches on her wanderings, but returns to her studio and makes paintings “very much out of my head and my imagination.” When she works she’s always listening – to the radio, to a podcast or more often to a book on tape.
“It’s actually really great for doing visual work. I really don’t understand how the brain works at all, but somehow, by engaging with a narrator, it’s very stimulating to the visual side of my brain. In a funny way, it almost distracts me so I’m not overthinking what I’m doing.”
The world of language is just as important to Belzer as the natural world. She was always an avid reader and in college took a major in English despite her background in art. She’s passionate about fiction – she recently listened to the unabridged “Moby-Dick” on tape – and mentions Willa Cather and Thomas Hardy as novelists for whom the natural world is a vivid presence, like a character in the book.
Belzer, who is young for her age, has the aspect of a woman whose life has unraveled in slow, easy currents, and not in fits and jolts. She met Pollan in 1974, when she was a freshman and he was a sophomore at Bennington College in Vermont. They’ve been together ever since – in Vermont, then Manhattan, then Connecticut and now Berkeley – and were married in 1987. Their son, Isaac, a student at Marin Academy in San Rafael, is 16.
She knows how rare it is to find a soul mate early in life and remain together. “For a while I thought, ‘I’m just way too young to get this seriously involved.’ But now I feel pretty lucky that I didn’t have to go through a lot of what I’ve watched all my friends go through.
“It’s been great. You know, a lot of people who get involved when they’re very young are sort of stuck in the same place as when they met. But I really feel like we’ve managed to grow up together. And he’s a writer and we have lots of things to talk about … different ideas about nature and culture and things like that. I feel very lucky. It’s been a great, very rewarding relationship.”
As she speaks, workers are hammering and sawing upstairs. Pollan’s writing studio, recently demolished because of dry rot, is being rebuilt. It’s only in the past five years, since Pollan took a job as Knight Professor at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, that his career has taken off. With his best-sellers “The Botany of Desire,” “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto,” Pollan has become one of the country’s major voices on agribusiness, nutrition and the ecology of eating.
Being married to a literary celebrity, Belzer says, “is a little challenging for me. I’m really proud of him and I think he does wonderful work. I don’t really like being ‘Mrs. Michael’ that much. … But I pretty much just do my work and try to keep my head down and not get too bothered by that.”
Belzer doesn’t see her nature paintings as political – as an advocate for environmental sensitivity – but she believes passionately that people needs to re-establish “a direct connection to our natural world. Unless we do that, we’re just going to continue living as if it doesn’t matter – as if it’s just always going to be there the way it is now.”
The Inner Life of Trees: Recent paintings by Judith Belzer. Through Nov. 8. Room for Painting Room for Paper, 49 Geary St., San Francisco.