Brochure essay for exhibition at Dorsch Gallery, January 7 - February 11, 2006
Ten years ago I wrote an essay for an exhibition of large painted collage by George Bethea in which I said that he is one of the very best artists of his generation and one that younger painters will heve to come to terms with if they are to paint seriously and well. This exhibition, and much else he has done in the meantime, confirms this opinion. Furthermore, the congested surface and luxuriant color which characterizes this work is now shared by a number of excellent artists, enough to perhaps constitute a "movement," albeit one still well underground. That pictures of this surpassing quality have not put Bethea in the limelight says far more about the art world than it does about his art.
Bethea is a classic modernist artist, making art that wants to enrich the world, not change it. His method of trying out, testing, editing, breaking down and rebuilding, proceeding always with the intuitive judgement of the eye, is how great art has been made for hundreds of years. He writes "...I surround myself with all my materials so I can respond quickly and intuitively to the painting. I (try not to) even think that I'm painting, just making something beautiful and full of life, with a little luck... More often than not the result is not at all what I expected... I just try to respond to what happened and take it from there. It happens that sometimes the best work comes out of the process of breaking down or taking the paint away."
Bethea paints with the canvas horizontal, troweling on modelling paste and acrylic pigments and adding other materials, such as glitter and glass beads, and he regularly distresses the surface with a pressure cleaner, creating broken patches and frayed contours. This makes a picture which is highly activated, not by the traditional method of side-by-side paint strokes but by layering and removing, which acknowledges and takes advantage of the natural movements of paste and liquid spread out on a flat surface.
The format is fairly simple, usually a dark ground supporting a single lighter form, more or less centered, which is variegated and uneven along the surface and and ragged at the edge (Mystic Dance, Dharani Dream), roiling and shattered (Buddah's Light), broken out in the center (Chopped Blue), or bursting into vapor (Source). These animating characteristics support the loaded surface and rich color, which are the soul of the painting.
Some of the color will be seen as garish, but this "non-art" harshness works; it is original, not gratuitous, applied not for effect but to collaborate with and balance the pictorial vigor of the scabrous surfaces that support it. Gentler coloration could not contend with this excoriated skin the way deep purple, bilious yellow-green and red glitter can. The paintings compel us to suspend expectations and see them on their own terms.
Although inspired by the spectacular photos taken by the Hubble telescope, Bethea's paintings are more a reflection of a vision than depictions of outer space. Subject matter is chosen because it is what the eye wants, after all. By using processes common in nature Bethea gets a painting that looks as much like a satellite picture of the earth's surface as a distant galaxy. And by yielding to his materials and allowing gravity and flowing water and the momentary judgement of the eye to guide and shape the work he gives us pictures which are at once powerful and splendidly casual.