Turnings and Returnings: The Art of Jake Berthot

By Orr, Gregory | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Turnings and Returnings: The Art of Jake Berthot


Orr, Gregory, The Virginia Quarterly Review


How easy it is to glance at/glance off so much contemporary art. Sometimes it seems partly a result of the postmodern repudiation of subjectivity and passion, which have always relied on images of depth for expression. One of postmodernism's more dubious contributions is to have substituted surface for depth. As if the self, with its dreams, passions, ideas, and longings can be so easily abolished. Given that Jake Berthot's recent work has located and explored depth through images drawn from the natural world, and has found a guide in Emerson, we might let the American philosopher's words orient us in the story of depth in nature and consciousness: "How shallow seemed to me yesterday in the woods the speech one often hears from tired citizens who have spent their brief enthusiasm for the country, that Nature is tedious, and they have had enough of green leaves. Nature and the green leaves are a million fathoms deep, and it is their eyes that are superficial." This depth of nature is a reservoir of life energy. In the words of the Victorian Jesuit poet Gérard Manley Hopkins: "There lives the dearest freshness deep down things." The vitalizing depth of nature speaks to the depth of human consciousness. Which is not to say that all is sunlit. If nature can be dark at night, human depths have their own mirroring and corresponding darkness and danger. The same poet, Hopkins, put it this way: "O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap / May who ne'er hung there." But whether the imagery is of darkness or light, jeopardy or joy, the conversation between self and nature is reciprocal.

Instead of the viewer's gaze skimming off the surface like a skipped stone as in so much contemporary painting, Jake Berthot's paintings hold you-stop you and engage you, stir you and disturb you. When you stand in front of one of Berthot's recent paintings, you immediately become aware of depths in the painting and you are drawn out into them, feel some part of yourself emptying into them. But then the mysterious mutuality of reverie takes hold: into your newly created emptiness, something flows from the painting. And gradually, steadily, the experience of gazing at the canvas becomes a reciprocal emptying-out and filling, an ebb and flow. Depth speaks to depth. And when at last, after successive, calm, reciprocal emptyings and fillings, you break the spell of the encounter, you emerge changed in some quiet but definite way.

The Turn

For a New York painter to move to the country, to move upstate to live alone in the Catskill Mountains where they fold fiercely down into the Hudson Valley, is not so unusual. Such a turning away from the urban toward the rural could be circumstantially or existentially motivated, could be a mark of success or a final enactment of that fed-upness that periodically overcomes all city dwellers, and especially artists. Still, Jake Berthot had lived for thirty-three years in New York City before moving to the country in 1994. His whole career had been woven into the fabric of the city and its art scene. Essentially self-taught, he had educated himself in the city's museums and art galleries and through his association with other abstract painters. Then, in his midfifties, shortly after his move to the country, landscape imagery entered his work. Such an abrupt shift from abstraction to figuration is not without precedent. Twenty years or so earlier, the Abstract Expressionist Philip Guston dramatically abandoned the abstraction his reputation rested on, but Guston had been a representational painter in his youth, before he embraced abstraction, and he was able to signal the continuity of his artistic quest across this late-life rupture by including images and themes from his youthful work. Berthot, in his turn to figuration, couldn't do that-he'd been an abstract painter his entire life. Nothing could disguise or mitigate the radical nature of Berthot's shift. …

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