Jake Berthot at McKee
Art in America, Jan, 2005 by Hearne Pardee
Jake Berthot, an artist known for his long engagement with pure, painterly process, turned from abstraction to landscape in the mid-1990s; in this, his third New York show since then, we can glimpse some tendencies and continuities in his work. Of the 10 oil paintings and six works on paper shown here, the ethereal drawings are more immediately seductive. Their legible progression from linear structure to shadowy mass lays bare Berthot's process: a grid provides the point of departure, over which Berthot outlines in pencil the contours of trees, which are in turn partly covered with areas of softly blended charcoal, suggesting masses of foliage and the ephemeral effects of light. There's a weightlessness to the transparent layers; crystalline geometry and clouds of shadow suggest a spiritual and intellectual elevation akin to that of Chinese brush paintings.
In the oils, on the other hand, these dematerialized layers are largely submerged in densely worked pigment, with a brooding darkness that recalls Romantics such as Albert Pinkham Ryder. What emerges at first glance is a conventional landscape composition, with gently graduated zones of shadow, broken by vertical tree trunks and punctuated by bursts of light. The materiality of paint also seems to inspire Berthot to provide more specific information--an occasional moon or campfire distracts us with anecdotal detail--with the result that the universalizing ambition of the drawings seems to yield to nostalgia for a particular historical style.
These allusions to 19th-century painting are not superficial appropriations but efforts to recover the sense of discovery artists such as Ryder brought to the medium. Berthot's concern is not with rendering leaves or bark, but with transforming pigment into substantial form, extending the transcendental impulse of his drawings into paint. His golden glows and ghostly, bluish lights articulate masses more elemental than any particular subject in nature. Most successful in foregrounding these concerns is Circle Oak (2002-03), which in its simplicity has much in common with his earlier paintings: a massive trunk emerges from shadows, twisting like a human torso, offering itself up to transformative light in which it seems to dissolve--more Rembrandt than Ryder. Landscape thus provides Berthot with another point of departure, one that yields more varied and substantial forms than did the minimalist grid alone. Beneath their antiquarian guise, these new works mark a significant step in his development.
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