"Then let us pass farther towards the north, until we see the orient colors change gradually into a vast belt of rainy green...the pastures...and dark forests...seen through clefts in grey swirls of rain-cloud and flaky veils of the mist of the brooks, spreading low along the pasture lands..."
-John Ruskin, "The Nature of Gothic"
"THE OPENING (FOR MILTON)"
Oil on panel
12 3/4 x 10 1/2 inches
Full disclosure: I'm partial to Jake Berthot's paintings because I admire the man. He was, by far, the best teacher I had in graduate school. I took to him immediately, even though our first interaction was rocky. In September of 2000, he walked into my studio, introduced himself and then stared at my drawings for several long minutes. A necklace of glasses hung down his chest - I recall three pairs on this particular day, but he sometimes wore four - and he fumbled between them, squinting through heavy lenses at some detail, a moment later stepping back to consider the whole through more dainty correctives. Occasionally, he shook his head in dissatisfaction. My palms were sweaty. Is this graduate school?, I wondered.
Finally, Jake sighed, stood up straight and turned to study me. "So do you like truck art?," he asked. I wasn't sure what he meant. Could he be thinking of airbrushed grim reapers, perhaps, the sort of heavy metal work emblazoned on the side of purple-black vans with tiny, tinted windows? "Truck art?," I asked. "Yeah. Truck art. Do you like truck art?" "Um...like the air brush stuff of flames and skulls?" "Yeah, truck art. Do you like it or not?" "Well, some of it. But I wouldn't say I'm really that into it."
He continued to look at me for a moment before returning his attention to the drawings hanging on the studio wall. Again with the musical glasses. I remained perched on an uncomfortably high stool in the corner of the space, eagerly awaiting some sort of verdict. Truck art? What in the hell is with this guy? At last he spoke again. "Well, I don't think I can work with you this semester." A pause...me, dumbfounded. "Yup...this isn't going to work." And, with that, he left the studio. Jake is an upfront guy. He calls things as he sees them and, often bleak, he can be a cantankerous fellow, but my semester with him at the School of Visual Arts was a special one, though I'm only beginning to fully appreciate this now, as both my work and I mature.
Oil on panel
25 x 25 inches
My own experience with the artist aside, his new paintings, currently being exhibited at Betty Cuningham Gallery in Chelsea, are bound to provoke a wide range of reaction. I attended the opening of the show yesterday evening and was impressed by the evocative, almost elegiac power of these recent works. The paintings are borne of Romantic impulse, surely, but the honest, visceral immediacy of the dark landscapes suggested an artist fathoming the sublime on his own, an artist less concerned with quotation than with keeping his own head above water.
STUDY FOR MILLS PASTURE
Graphite on paper
21 x 27 inches
These are passionate, emotional works and I found myself recalling John Ruskin's 1853 essay on Gothic architecture and the Nordic cast of mind. In it, he writes, "...a strong intellect will have pleasure in the solemnities of storm and twilight, and in the broken and mysterious lights that gleam among them, rather than in mere brilliancy and glare, while a frivolous mind will dread the shadow and the storm." The gallery's press release notes Jake's stated attempt to "paint silence before it completely disappears." I like that turn of phrase, but there is more than silence in these pictures, particularly in some of the smaller works on panel.
Turning to Ruskin again, I see in these landscapes an awe and violence, a "splintering into irregular and grisly islands...until the roots of the last forests fail from among the hill ravines, and the hunger of the north wind bites their peaks into barrenness; and, at last, the wall of ice, durable like iron, sets, deathlike, its white teeth against us out of the polar twilight." Jake includes no ice, no cragged and rough mountainscapes, in these pictures, but they bite all the same. Curiously, the aggression is reactionary but the technique remains considered, almost methodical, as the artist attempts to light his way while navigating increasingly dark terrain. Jake Berthot, years after Art World celebration of his work quieted, is producing potent, pertinent paintings. May his journey continue for many more.
Oil on panel
27 3/4 x 24 3/4 inches
Photo credit: (c)Jake Berthot, Courtesy Betty Cuningham Gallery, New York