by David M. Roth
Cringe or laugh? Those are the dueling reactions that overtook me upon seeing Where We Stand, Judith Belzer’s exhibition of rock paintings, her first at Hosfelt Gallery. These stop-action depictions of avalanches, loosely painted with a paucity of descriptive detail, stand as crystalline metaphors for the shifting ground on which we stand, environmentally and politically. How else to view pictures of falling rocks?
On the other hand, if you grew up during the golden age of televised cartoons, you may well hear the voice of Fred Flintstone (“Wilma!”) as you recall the spectacle of prehistoric men moving rocks with dinosaurs impressed into service as cranes and bulldozers. The other comedic element running through the exhibition is the Japanese art of rock balancing, wherein stones of various shapes and sizes are coaxed into seemingly impossible states of gravity-defying equipoise. A representative example is All that is Solid #15, in which rocks big and small hang in space, unsupported or wedged together in unlikely configurations, as if frozen in free fall.
Whichever way this mix of terror and humor strikes you, what’s abundantly clear is that Belzer isn’t making landscape paintings for display over the mantel; she paints rocks to create a visual analog for the disaster that is climate change. Though evidence of it
mounts daily, the slow speed at which it unfolds allows deniability and inaction, thereby ensuring its unimpeded progress. Belzer’s paintings encapsulate that reality. They make us conscious of the human mind’s ability to hold and entertain contradictory thoughts while suspending reason and action. She mirrors this delusional self-distancing by representing the rocks generically, using mostly faint shadows and highlights to convey dimensionality. This spare approach to paint handling may leave you wanting; yet that is precisely what enables her to enlist rocks as emblems of a divided mindset (as opposed to, say, rendering them factually, as specific specimens of primordial matter). Another part of this conceptual approach involves painting some of the backgrounds – yawning voids, really — in misty, pastel washes, shades of which rarely appear in nature. This treatment I take to be a not-so-sly nod to 19th-century romantic landscape painting and its representations of the sublime. Initially, it denoted fear and awe in the presence of nature, something our subjugation of it supposedly ended. However, the spate of human-made disasters overtaking the planet may well be ushering in a new, darker version of the sublime, evidenced in popular culture by Don’t Look Up, a film in which the Earth’s imminent destruction is greeted with a collective shrug.
Belzer responds the only way one can: by messing with our sense of equilibrium. All that is Solid #24, a painting of orange-colored boulders floating in space, for example, has wisps of blue peeking out from the bottom. They’re hard to see, but if you look closely, you’ll realize they represent the horizon upside down. All that is Solid # 30, a work unlike anything else on view, shows a single boulder close-up in harsh light. A caption, if you were to append one, might read: “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.”
This is not the first time Belzer’s thrown viewers off-balance. Two prior series dealing with monumental acts of environmental hubris – the construction of Western U.S. dams and the Panama Canal – feature landscapes as vertiginous as any Wayne Thiebaud painted of San Francisco, those being the standard-bearers for this sort of spatial monkeywrenching. (Olive Ayhens, a New York painter, shares a similar gift.) Ultimately, not even rocks may be capable of bearing witness to our folly. As Belzer says, quoting Karl Marx: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”
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Judith Belzer: “Where We Stand” @ Hosfelt Gallery through April 23, 2022.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.