Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013

On the Edge: Judith Belzer at Morgan Lehman

Judith Belzer: Edgelands at Morgan Lehman Gallery

March 28 to April 27, 2013
535 West 22nd Street (between 10th and 11th avenues)
New York City, 212-268-6699

Judith Belzer, Through Lines #20, 2011. Oil on canvas, 34 x 74 inches. Courtesy of Morgan Lehman Gallery
Judith Belzer, Through Lines #20, 2011. Oil on canvas, 34 x 74 inches. Courtesy of Morgan Lehman Gallery

Judith Belzer’s recent paintings careen between the vertiginous grandeur of her larger, blueprint-like compositions and the close-up, increasingly flat and microscopic intimacy of her smaller canvases. The cellular, gridded patterns of these latter paintings (each only 10 by 10 inches), derive from birds-eye views of fuel storage tanks and industrial sites that flank the freeways, often alongside the compromised wetlands of San Francisco Bay: those eight-lane highways packed with perpetually congested or rushing traffic that snakes far below the precipitous Berkeley highlands.

The artist’s move to the West Coast a decade ago had a liberating effect on her work, enlarging her painterly vocabulary and opening up her style. After living in Manhattan and Connecticut she found her visual thinking astonished and transformed by the fierce scale, sweep, and sprawl of this new and unfamiliar urbanized landscape.

While it is heady with visual drama, her newest work embodies growing disquiet at the relentless industrial invasion of the natural environment. Belzer’s previous series of paintings, in which she discovered within the internal patterning of wood grain and tree bark a mysterious, undulating abstraction, were uncanny, analytical, close-up compositions. Her “Edgelands” series expands to probe contemporary culture’s uneasy relationship with the natural landscape through sweeping graphic patterning and design rendered as a kind of cartographical shorthand. Line, rather than any overwhelming color, dominates these pictures, while a radiant sense of encompassing light is transmitted through Belzer’s use of a rich variety of whites. ( A passionate relationship with nature has underlain her art throughout her career. Belzer’s early work, first shown in 1996 at Berry Hill Galleries in New York, were realistically observed, yet quite expressionistically rendered studies of the forms of different flowers, fruits and foliage.)

Judith Belzer, Edgelands #30, 2013. Oil on canvas, 56 x 56 inches.  Courtesy of Morgan Lehman Gallery
Judith Belzer, Edgelands #30, 2013. Oil on canvas, 56 x 56 inches. Courtesy of Morgan Lehman Gallery

These newest paintings are deliriously complex. The artist’s use of dizzying perspective may recall Wayne Thiebaud’s joyfully vertical San Francisco streetscapes and checkerboard constellations of fields, but Belzer’s tenser vision is distinctly more dystopian than his, breathless with speed rather than serenely static.  And though there is some romanticism about painting itself in her works, an emphasis on recording the impact of modern industrial realities represents an affinity with Rackstraw Downes’ scrupulous, reportorial realism.

Her Olympian, aerial perspective maps shifting layers of urbanized landscape where planners, with a heavy hand, have superimposed factories, storage tanks, warehouses and superhighways on the spectacular coastline. Alarm at this ruthless environmental damage finds an echo, in Belzer’s aesthetically compelling recent work, in her over-the-speed-limit trajectories of agitated line.  Belzer is an artist whose work grows ever more ambitious and distinctive.

This spring, concurrent with the gallery exhibition, Belzer’s work will be included in two museum group shows in New York: Against the Grain at the Museum of Arts and Design and Drawn to Nature at Wave Hill in Riverdale, New York.

Judith Belzer, Through Lines #27, 2011). Oil on canvas, 64 x 64 inches. Courtesy of Morgan Lehman Gallery
click to enlarge