Up From Abstraction

In some European mythologies, the manifold, unstructured world is made from the dismembered body of a primordial giant. Once cut

In some European mythologies, the manifold, unstructured world is made from the dismembered body of a primordial giant. Once cut apart, he cannot be reassembled. But certain missionaries declare that it was chaos that came first, and that figures are formed from out of chaos by acts of creative will. The painter Jake Berthot, formerly as committed to abstraction as any other druid, heard the good news in the mid-1990s, after moving to the Catskills, and he began drawing low mountains over isometric pencil grids and painting moody, atmospheric pictures of trees. But his was no simple change of modes; it was a slow and uneasy transformation. The 15 paintings and two drawings currently showing at Betty Cunningham both document and depict this careful reemergence of form.

It starts with a close-cropped view of the crotch of a tree, in smoky gray colors that circle around black. Embodied just enough to be recognized–Tree is a tree without twig or bark–it is not distinctly more solid than the sky behind it. Forking, like a road, in two equal directions, it is a diagram of the decision pregnant in its own ambiguous form: body or spirit? To specify or to dissolve?

Untitled (2008-2010), also in the front room, seems at first like a Hudson River school landscape ad infinitum, a canvas filled with the dark night sky. But then you notice that the yellow nimbus of the sun, peeking up behind a cloud bar, looks as much like a navel as it does like the sun, and it’s hard to say which is the metaphor. Sycamore–which grows, like most of Mr. Berthot’s trees, from the close right to the upper left–is brightly lit and stands out dramatically from a glowing, orangish-brown background. But if it’s a more distinct shape, it’s not necessarily a more distinct tree-it could also be a shoulder blade, or even an eagle stalling down to a landing. Icarus shows a pitiless pale sky behind plunging blue-gray cliffs. But the small yellow daub of sun shining through the mist, the source, in one sense, of the rest of the picture, is defiantly paint, not a sun, and isometric pencil lines break through like a dome above it. In The Longing For, a tree that could also be a twister or a black lightning bolt or a vein strikes down from a patch of light in the sky–or else yearns up to it.

In Skull and Vase (Source), Mr. Berthot’s memento Morandi, the nocturnal cloaking is stripped away from the diagram that supports these other paintings. At the front right, white and bitterly flat, on a flat brown table, is a small vase; halfway back into the distance, in the painting’s very center, is a skull, more vivid despite its softer lines; and all the way back, in the top left corner, floating in a dark gray heaven, half a dozen yellow brush strokes form three tentative crosses as pure Platonic marks.

The question is, which way are we going? Are the yellow crosses incarnating as a schematic white vase, or is the vase quietly aspiring to become the yellow crosses? For the moment, at least, in serene triangular mountains and deep brown skies and trees, everything meets in the middle.


The proper reply to “My kid could do that” would be, most of the time, “Maybe so–but you can’t.” Joe Bradley–whose latest show is “Mouth and Foot Painting” at Gavin Brown Enterprise–sometimes can and sometimes can’t. A line of framed pencil, ink and crayon drawings are hit or miss: a simple round face with back-and-forth hair and a triangle nose, or a stick-legged figure on the back of a ripped orange flier, balance childish impulse perfectly with an adult eye. Yet a cartoon hand holding a cross not only doesn’t mean anything but doesn’t even mean anything by not meaning anything.

The paintings, floating cacophonies of simple colors and not-quite images on dirty, untreated canvas, are like Turing-test koans–they dare the viewer to think about them. The cock of Mouth and Foot (Cock and Balls), for example, is a black, whale-shaped outline with a red windowpane in its face; the Christian fish of Mouth and Foot (Ichthus) is inside an almond-shaped mouth with six pointy teeth; and Mouth and Foot (Bust) is a pixelated nipple that’s really a man that’s really two stacked canvases with schematic circles for breasts. Of course, real koans have answers. The sound of one hand clapping, for example, is a slap.

Up From Abstraction