The Walter Darby Bannard Archive

George Bethea's New Paintings (2009)

Catalogue essay for exhibition at Edge Zones, Miami, November 2009.

George Bethea continues to be one of the very best artists of his generation, one of a small group of ambitious, original painters in Miami working at a very high level with little recognition. That he is not celebrated for his accomplishments says more about the Miami art world than it does about his work. It certainly accords with the modern tradition of obliging the best to work in relative obscurity. Perhaps it should not be surprising in a time when art can be anything and therefore usually amounts to nothing.

At the same time that he is an innovator, ahead of his time, Bethea is an artist who belongs in spirit to earlier generations, for whom art was as serious in the intention as it was joyful in the experience, art that aims deep and will not allow itself to be ambushed by fashion. His is not the pseudo-innovation of contrived, outlandish content which gluts the galleries these days but innovation within his materials: the relatively new acrylic mediums which remain insufficiently exploited by all but a few serious artists.

From the huge "squashed interference" pictures of the early 90s to the large black and silver roofing-paper collages of some years ago to the eccentric and strangely beautiful paintings of today he persists in doing things with these paints that no one else does. This is innovation aimed at making good art, nothing else.

Someone once said that Bethea's paintings are "rude". I think this was well taken; they're a bit insolent, perhaps, "in your face", but compelling. They strike the eye as extravagant but simultaneously fail to satisfy most of the customary expectations of composition and paint handling that help ease us into familiarity with new art.

We are, instead, induced to get used to the odd colors and ragged surfaces, and the way the ungainly forms clump up and gather in awkward places, which in turn draws us directly to the beauty and character of the colors and shapes and surfaces rather than what has been done with them. Just as a deliberately casual, low-production photograph or film leads us into the intrinsic nature of the represented objects, so Bethea's paintings make us turn from our usual pictorial presumptions to more intensely see and feel, for example, the pitted and scarred green mass of Moss Man as something that has gathered up and declared itself as such, for what it is.

This is how these pictures work. They are new and refreshing and peculiarly modern, and they are very, very good.