Jake Berthot, "Skull" (2012), oil on linen, 27 1/8" x 21 1/8" (all images courtesy Betty Cuningham)

Jake Berthot, “Skull” (2012), oil on linen, 27 1/8″ x 21 1/8″ (all images courtesy Betty Cuningham Gallery)

For the past twenty years Jake Berthot has painted his vision of the Catskill Mountains, where he has lived since 1994, after living in Manhattan, much of it on the Bowery, for thirty years. A painter of what he calls “small sensations,” Berthot has included fourteen paintings and six drawings completed in the last three years, in his current solo exhibition at Betty Cuningham Gallery (October 17–November 30, 2013). A notoriously slow painter, Berthot has accelerated his output most likely because the artist, who is in his early 70s, is hearing something akin to Andrew Marvell’s haunting lines:

Time’s winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.

Berthot’s works are of a man living alone who understands the literalness of the phrase, life is getting shorter by the minute. This is perhaps why he seems to be looking in three directions at once: the past, present and future.

Jake Berthot, “Untitled (Tree)” (2013), oil on linen

The paintings are simple observations: a tree; a landscape stretching into the distance; a skull sitting on a table, facing you, like a friend who is trying to tell you something and needs you to look him in the eye. They are complemented by delicate pencil drawings in which he uses an isometric-orthographic grid, which is often still visible, to locate and measure a tree trunk’s slow rise and twist, or a skull’s contours, rounded surfaces and angles.

The palette runs toward coppery greens, sepias, umbers, and blacks, with traces of red and white. The light is faint and dissipating or it’s diminished to a glow in the distance. It is always night in Berthot’s paintings, with no promise that dawn will arrive. It is the blackness that inhabits, and thrives, in the heart of America, however much we might trumpet otherwise.

Jake Berthot, “Shawangunk” (2010–2011), oil on linen

In “Shawangunk” (2010–11), as in “Little Black Skull Painting” (2012), “Untitled (Tree)” (2013), and other paintings in the exhibition, we don’t see the subject, a mountain ridge in the distance, so much as watch it slowly emerge from the darkness of the underpainting, the ridged and scarred surfaces and the glazing. Earlier, when I said that Berthot was looking in three directions simultaneously, I was thinking of “Shawangunk,” though it applies to the other paintings in the exhibition as well.

Jake Berthot, “Little Black Skull Painting” (2012), oil on linen (click to enlarge)

The Catskill Mountains are where the Hudson River School painters, Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, and Cole’s only pupil, Frederick Church, set up their easels. Full of optimism, these artists celebrated nature’s abundance and wildness, filling their work with incredible detail as well and suffusing it with a “luminist” glow. Church, in particular, had a flair for the dramatic.

In his redoing of the Hudson River region, Berthot transforms the radiant glow of Cole and Church into a yellowed light sinking beyond the a distant horizon. The present Catskill Mountains are where one finds, along with still-wild stretches of landscape, a town named Cementon, trailer homes and rural poverty. The blackness of Nathaniel Hawthorne has become the everyday bleakness of Wal-Mart and garage sales. Without ever referring to the commonplace features of early-21st-century life in upstate New York, Berthot seems to get directly at the gloom seeping in, like contaminated groundwater or the acrid smell of tires burning in the town dump. For all the beauty of the Catskills, there are the eyesores that Berthot has absorbed into his being and which color his work.

The future seems to hold only global warming and the continuing slide towards cessation, the end of one’s time on earth. To counteract the distress of these realizations, Berthot approaches his subjects with a single-minded, monkish patience. He might be completing his paintings in a shorter time, but you never get the sense that he is hurrying them along. He will neither going to go gently into that good night nor rage against the dying of its light. He knows the trees will outlive him.

Jake Berthot, “Untitled” (2013), graphite on paper

It seems to me that at this late stage in his solitary life, Berthot has found true liberty in his ever-darkening surroundings. In these paintings and drawings — their echoes of, and callings to, Rembrandt, Church, and Paul Cezanne — I get the sense that he has done something quite powerful. In this moment of darkness he has embraced who he is. So many artists and writers spend their whole life trying to become someone else, who can never get past  the innovations of Albert Pinkham Ryder, Han Shan or Frank O’Hara. Not Berthot, who accepts that he is neither original nor innovative. But to be neither does not mean failure or being derivative.

Originality and innovation have become marketable commodities.

For all the darkness and potential morbidity of subjects such as the skull, there is a remarkable amount of joy and humility in Berhot’s works. A skull may emerge out of paint’s muck, but he is not going to turn away from it, nor is he going to proclaim that transcendence is waiting just around the corner. Instead, he is going to caress the skull out of the darkness into existence, this anonymous thing that was once a human being. In working with a subject that goes back to Rembrandt and Georges de la Tour, not to mention Cezanne and Picasso, Berthot wrests from it something that is unmistakably his own.

Jake Berthot continues at Betty Cuningham Gallery (541 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through November 30.

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John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook,...

9 replies on “Jake Berthot Doesn’t Need To Be Original”

    1. I dunno, you could say Rothko derived his work from rectangles but that would only take away from them. The immediacy of these transcends that way of art viewing.

      1. Interesting that you should pick Rothko to make your point in that both he and Berthot deal with similar messages: life and death,the void. I suppose you could say that Rothko borrows his rectangles but from where? Geometry? I think in the history of art such a pure use of them is rather innovative?Also his use of color in those soft-edged rectangles, although derivative from the Fauves was pushed to a level of simplicity that is unique to him. Moreover, the level of painting as gesture, that firmly places him among the abstract expressionists, is exhilarating. The message of the precariousness of our existence, that they both share, diverges: in the hands of Rothko it verges on terror.In the hands of Berthot on sentiment.Rothko struggles to make his visual language fresh and new which in turn makes his message so much more powerful .

  1. hmm . . . history, life, art . . . it’s all a bit derivative yes? in
    that everlasting, ignoble, UNpleasurably delicious sort of way to which
    these words and these works speak . . . utterly YUM.

    1. So true we are derivative.I did not name myself nor decide my ethnicity nor this language I speak. I guess all those things that I should embrace and find so delicious: history art etc even life make me anxious.Anxiety moves me away from my center.

  2. I like the idea of past present future – because it reminds me of both cubism, and when I heard Jake talk about art being like a time/duration piece. How you first see a painting, how you see a painting when you sit with it, and how you carry a painting burnt into your memory.

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