The View From Berkeley: Moving to the Bay Area Radicalized a Painter's Vision of Landscapes

In every creative field, some artists arrive at a particular aesthetic style and decide that's it. That's them. Forever. (Hello, Woody Allen. Hello, Kenny G.) Then there's saxophonist John Coltrane, architect I.M Pei, and others who decide they have to experiment — damn their past successes, damn (if need be) their longtime fans. Such is the case for painter Judith Belzer, whose new work is an explosive torrent of colorful wiggles, swirls, triangulations, crests, gradations, and vistas that are aerial maps of Belzer's active imagination. Belzer's early paintings were much quieter, and much more fixated on small scenes of nature.

Belzer's older work garnered a modicum of attention at select exhibits. Belzer's new work is garnering critical praise at exhibits coast to coast, including from ARTnews (“painterly sweeps across canvases”) and New York magazine (“richly sketchy panoramic landscapes”). And the new Belzer, at age 57, won one of the world's more prestigious awards: a Guggenheim fellowship, which Belzer began earlier this year. Belzer's latest offerings line the walls of San Francisco's George Lawson Gallery in a show titled, “Paths of Desire.”

Belzer's artistic transformation began in 2003, when she and her husband, writer Michael Pollan, moved from a small Connecticut town to north Berkeley. Before, Belzer was enveloped by the greater expanse of nature. In Berkeley, Belzer experienced — just by looking from the hills of her neighborhood — geographic demarcations where parks abut urban neighborhoods, and waterways parallel crowded freeways. Belzer's canvases capture this crazy quilt of connected parts, all from distorted bird's-eye perspectives and all with an artistic energy, playfulness, and freneticism that is hard to resist, even if some of Belzer's fans pine for her older artwork, which she's not doing anymore.

“Some people come out of the woodwork and ask for a series from before, and say, 'Do you have any of those berry paintings left or any of those tree paintings left?'” says Belzer. “And I'll say, 'Well, there aren't any left.' And they say, 'Can't you make another one?' And I'll say, 'Not really.' For me, it's not like that.”

Knowledgeable art-goers who see Belzer's new paintings often say they resemble the work of Wayne Thiebaud and Richard Diebenkorn, who've also used landscapes to make quasi-abstractions. The comparison is meant as an unassailable compliment since Thiebaud and Diebenkorn are two of the most towering figures in the history of American (and Bay Area) painting. But the resemblance to Thiebaud and Diebenkorn is pure coincidence, Belzer says. And her artwork, unlike the work of Thiebaud and Diebenkorn, avoids mirroring specific locations. Where Thiebaud creates a 2001 painting like Ponds and Streams that is clearly based on a location near his Sacramento-area home, Belzer's works are geographic inventions that never mention location. Each piece at George Lawson Gallery is titled with just a number, as in Paths of Desire #2. Because Belzer leaves out specifics, art-goers are free to fill in their own ideas, giving them more leeway to interpret Belzer's paint strokes. That's what Belzer wants. Being open to her own surroundings is how Belzer gradually discovered a new way of painting in the Bay Area, even if she hesitated at first.

“I was a pretty resistant mover,” says Belzer. “I was in my mid-to-late-ish 40s, and I was continuing along in the vein I had been working in, which was to look up very close at the landscape and try to invite a more intimate relationship with the landscape. The biggest shock I felt when I moved across the country was how much smaller you feel in the landscape. It was a shift in scale.”

Like any “sudden evolution,” the roots of Belzer's earlier work can be found in her new paintings. In her series “The Inner Life of Trees” from 2008, which examined the textures of trees, nature occupied center stage. In her new paintings, nature's brown and green surfaces play a supporting role, colliding and overlapping with competing elements that are just as alive, just as desirous to expand in any direction possible, any way possible.

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