The Walter Darby Bannard Archive

George Bethea: Painted Collage (1995)

Catalog essay for exhibition at the Dorsch Gallery, Miami, FL, April 1995. Reproduced as catalog notes for George Bethea exhibition at Gulf Coast Community College, Pensacola, FL, November 1995.

This is an important exhibition of very strong abstract art. George Bethea, in my opinion, and from what I've seen, is making art which is better than anyone of his generation. It may be that his emergence as an artist coincides with a time in art when no one seems able or willing to "see" really fresh unfamiliar art, but that is beside the point.

It has been a pleasure to watch and take part in George's rapid evolution as a painter over the last four years. He is one of the most serious young artists I have encountered, hungry to make his art better at any cost. When I first talked to George he dumped everything which was holding him back after only a few sessions of encouraging criticism, even though it meant abandoning a method which was comfortably "solid", if nothing else. Rebuilding from scratch with nothing but naked ability he painted prodigiously, trying anything, looking at everything, asking anyone for suggestions. In time he got hold of Matisse, or rather, of my new book on Matisse, and single-mindedly painted big, loose "blow-ups" of Matisse landscapes for several months. When he was done Matisse was ingested; George "had" Matisse, so to speak, and my new book was clotted with acrylic paint, the spine broken, pages hanging loose.

George is not a neat artist; there's debris all over the studio. When he took an interest in acrylic gel and the new interference and iridescent colors he tracked splotches and scabs of these materials all over his studio floor. One day he noticed that a pale interference squashed by his shoes against a blackened floorboard looked better than what he was doing on canvas. Perceptions like this are the stuff of invention. With little hesitation he worked up a method based less on brushing than pressing the paint down - using large fragments of lucite on a canvas painted black. Not only did he come up with a pungent and dazzling way to enliven a painted surface but also found that the method adapted to, or called for, large size. George went for it, making huge (up to 10' by 22') canvases of glowing, tumbling multi-colored clouds of interference color. These spectacular paintings went into the Master's show at the Lowe Art Museum in May 1993. I don't think I've ever seen an artist come so far so fast.

By then George was highly sensitized to materials, producing very good, very large abstract paintings at will. Once again however, an incidental perception exploded into a dramatic new method, one which went forward from the pressed interference, joining it with the internalized Matisse landscape and the papier collé of Braque and Picasso. He had noticed an undergraduate who was freely experimental with materials using aluminum-faced roofing paper in her paintings. I would guess, having made dozens of all-painterly pictures, George had developed an appetite for clarity and order. He got a large supply of the silver paper and set about making medium to large collages in silver, white and black, often partly covered with translucent swipes of colored gel, which successfully (and surprisingly) incorporate the casual, sensual stroke and eccentric composition of a Matisse landscape with the sparkling "rightness" of a Braque papier collé with new materials in large size.

Why hadn't this been done already? Amazingly, there's no real precedent in post-war abstract painting. Motherwell maybe, but his collages and pasted paper stayed small, while his large, cubist-influenced work was painted in oil. Like Manet before him, George Bethea is reaching back, away from the abject commercialism and inane nihilism of present day paintings to find and bring forward the best of the past for his art. And, like Manet, both the quality and originality of the art depends on the way the antecedents are chosen and used; a great part of originality depends on the timing and choice of influence.

Though composed, for the most part, of large simple, distinct units, these pictures are richly modulated and quite witty. Oblique, unintended references to things and states of being run through them and are part of their character, and there is a delightful liveliness which is never insistent or overbearing.

Alto Plano (1995) is among a group of these pictures which evoke the word "grand" from me; I suppose I sense some monumental dignity in them, together with a delicate, somatic touch which puts me in mind of Anthony Caro's sculpture. Budda's Delight (1995) is nominally abstract, but it also reads as a crazy volcanic landscape with things whizzing through the air. Himalaya (1996) and Sailor's Choice (1995) have enough of a feel of landscape to induce a sense of illusionistic space on the resistant, aluminum field, allowing the looping swipes of black paint to seem to casually, carelessly recede or approach. Jam Mam (1995) topples like a reckless but inexperienced diver into an agitated splash of black paint. Such describable characteristics, in themselves, do not in themselves make these pictures good. But part of seeing how good they are means seeing, and sensing the way these somber black surfaces and torn and wrinkled sheets of cold silver and white have been fashioned into pictures full of playful high spirits.

They are there for your pleasure. Enjoy them.