by Maria Porges
Delicate, spidery lines and luminous washes of color fill Judith Belzer’s landscapes of the Panama Canal Zone: pictures of a place where the man-made and the natural abruptly collide. Belzer has been increasingly interested in such sites for the last few years. For her, the Zone embodies the Anthropocene, that being the name now used to denote the current geological era, in which man — not weather, volcanic activity, glaciers, tectonic movement or even asteroids – has become the primary agent of environmental change.
It isn’t difficult to understand why this kind of human influence would be of interest to a contemporary landscape artist. The Canal Zone’s peculiar combination of what Belzer calls “the wild and the tamed” led her to travel there in 2014 to see its astonishing scenery for herself, from the winding curves of the canal cutting through forest to the dizzying shifts in scale created by immense freighters slipping through the narrow locks of the canal. Even though her compositions are far from literal representations of what she saw, they capture many aspects of her experiences, like riding on a tugboat for a day. In works like Canal Zone 4, for example, we look straight up at a hull from the tiny tugboat’s deck.
There is no horizon in any of these images; as viewers we’re either surrounded by massive objects (ships, containers) or peering across vertiginous, tilted spreads of water threading through grids of buildings or piles of stuff. Like Wayne Thiebaud’s scenes of delta farmland or San Francisco’s steep streets,
Belzer’s pictures are both descriptive and imaginative. At the same time, her combinations of bright color, organic form and grids of whippy lines recall the great decorative genius of Austrian artist and environmentalist Friedensreich Hundertwasser.
What are we to think of these scenes? Nothing here is real enough to make us cringe at the way in which the landscape has been refashioned to suit economic imperatives, or to consider what life is like for the Panamanians who live and work in this disrupted place. Instead, there is something cool and distanced about
Belzer’s point of view. Her intention, it seems, is not to disturb the viewer, but to simply observe, interpret, and record. She describes her experience of studying the canal as being akin to “looking through an adjustable telescoping lens, seeing things that were both profoundly disturbing and exquisitely beautiful at different scales.”
In the end, though, that which is disturbing has been muffled by the beautiful. Whether this is a side effect of its passage through the artist’s ‘lens’ or simply because her desire is to show and not tell, the effect is the same. As we find our way through these hybrid landscapes, we have to make our own decisions about places like this, and what they mean both in the present and in a future in which there will be so many more of them, as we continue to push ever further into transforming the world to our liking.
Judith Belzer: ”Canal Zone: Recent Work from the Panama Project” @ George Lawson Gallery through April 9, 2016.
About the Author:
Maria Porges is an artist and writer who lives and works in Oakland. For over two decades, her critical writing has appeared in many publications, including Artforum, Art in America, Sculpture, American Craft, Glass, the New York Times Book Review and many other publications. The author of nearly 100 exhibition catalog essays, she presently serves as an associate professor at California College of the Arts.