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.
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.
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.
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.
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.