Judith Belzer: Vertiginous views of familiar landscapes

Paths of Desire # 3, 2014, 56 x 56 in (142.25 x 142.25 cm) by Judith Belzer. Photo: George Lawson Gallery
Paths of Desire # 3, 2014, 56 x 56 in (142.25 x 142.25 cm) by Judith Belzer. Photo: George Lawson Gallery

An exhibition of Judith Belzer‘s new work opened recently at the George Lawson Gallery in San Francisco. It runs through May 31, 2014. Berkeleyside caught up with the artist, who lives and works in Berkeley, to find out what’s on her mind and how that translates into her glorious canvases.

How would you describe your new work?

The newest body of work is a series of paintings called “Paths of Desire.” This is a term generally used in the urban planning world to describe various transportation patterns, but more broadly it alludes to paths that spontaneously emerge as shortcuts between two points. It seemed like an evocative term to apply to the landscapes I am inventing in the newest paintings.

In this work I am engaging with our local Bay Area landscape — a sweeping, highly animated, multi-faceted place where the built environment interlaces with and, in some cases, uncomfortably jams up against a relatively wild one, giving rise to a pulsing network of arteries and passageways through which all manner of life and commerce flow.


Here we can see our cultural and basic human desires at work exploring and pushing out into the landscape with a terrific sense of dynamism, exhilaration — and also barely contained chaos.

Paths of Desire # 7, 2014, 56 x 56 in (142.25 x 142.25 cm) by Judith Belzer. Photo: George Lawson Gallery
Paths of Desire # 7, 2014, 56 x 56 in (142.25 x 142.25 cm) by Judith Belzer. Photo: George Lawson Gallery

In what way does the new series differ from your previous work?

I moved to the Bay Area almost 11 years ago, after living on the East Coast for many years. The move across the country was a shocker. As an artist who has always made nature-based work, I was most surprised by the different sense of scale in the Western landscape. In rural New England, where I’d been working before our move, the landscape is intimate. There I felt almost in a 1:1 ratio with the natural world, and for many years my work examined mundane elements (i.e., the forest scrim, a bramble, winter berries etc.) from this small-scale world up close. The work aimed to invite the viewer to engage with nature directly (we being a part of it), and to reconsider some of our long-held American (and in my opinion, unproductive) views of nature as sublime, remote, unchanging and saved for a weekend visit to a wilderness park.

My work continued in this vein after the cross-country move, but, out here, I felt suddenly shrunken in the face of a vaster landscape made up of comparatively huge forms, broad expanses and the profoundly different perspective offered by the hills.

During the first few years of being in Berkeley I explored the larger forms I observed on my walks around the East Bay hills. I made a lot of work having to do with, first, the very animated live oak trees and, later, with the controversial (fire threat, water guzzlers!) eucalyptus.

Over time, the imagery in my work pierced through the tree bark and began exploring, at an almost cellular level, the inner life of these trees. Making paintings about the lively patterns and structures of the wood up close led me to note how these images could visually echo other organic forms (body parts, rock formations, sand dunes) at a variety of scales (mountainsides, skin tissue, ant hills) and, finally, even the built environment (architectural structure, urban grids).

This development eventually led me to begin looking up and out at the landscape to see how I might consider our relationship with the natural world in a new way. The new imagery I described above, which has been developing over the past couple of years, brought about a dramatic change in my use of color (amped up), the kind of marks I make with the paint and the vertiginous, multiple perspectives I employ.

It’s been an agitating and interesting process.

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Judith Belzer, center, at the opening of her new show, “Paths of Desire,” at the George Lawson Gallery. Photo: courtesy George Lawson

You live in Berkeley. Is your studio also in the East Bay? Can you describe your process a little, in terms of how you might spend a day working?

Most days I spend several hours at my studio, which is currently located in a storefront in South Berkeley. The space has two high-ceilinged rooms, one of which has gigantic skylights that flood the room with fantastic light. I’ve never worked in a place with a lot of natural light before, and I’m sure that the blast of light is contributing to the recent changes in my color palette.

I usually have several paintings going, but, on a given day, I tend to focus on one. I’m on my feet a lot, but I have a chair facing the wall on which in-progress paintings hang and that chair gets a good workout.

I also make large watercolors (there’s a big work-table that was left behind by the costume business that previously occupied the space), often in the beginning of the day as a kind of warm-up, slowly developing them over several days.

Paths of Desire # 9, 2014, 40 x 40 in (101.5 x 101.5 cm) by Judith Belzer. Photo: George Lawson Gallery
Paths of Desire # 9, 2014, 40 x 40 in (101.5 x 101.5 cm) by Judith Belzer. Photo: George Lawson Gallery

You were recently named a Guggenheim Fellowship recipient. Can you tell us what you plan to do for that?

This fellowship, which I am thrilled to have been awarded, will support studio work and enable me to travel to the Panama Canal early next year to see that evolving landscape and the energies being unleashed by the massive expansion now underway. The Canal is scheduled to re-open at a doubled capacity sometime next year. I got interested in going there after reading about this construction project.

In light of my own explorations of the complex Bay Area landscape, I have become more attuned to places around the world where nature and industry meet to profoundly alter the landscape. The Canal Zone offers a visual feast and plenty to think about in terms of environmental impact, the imperialist impulse, and the reach of commerce,  but it also invites us to find beauty in the unpredictable juxtapositions of the natural and the built, the wild and the tamed.

“Paths of Desire: New paintings” runs through May 31, 2014 at the George Lawson Gallery,  315 Potrero Ave., San Francisco.

Related:
Connections: Two Berkeley artists, one exhibition (09.07.10)

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