The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2011

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FEB 2011 Issue


On View
Betty Cuningham Gallery
December 9, 2010 – February 19, 2011
New York

“Berthot is stuck.”
“Is he?”

, he is stuck in a place, but he’s stuck the way humans get stuck, and if you’re stuck that way, then he’s right.

If, traveling north on I-95, you take the exit for the service area in West Gardiner, Maine, and walk into the rotunda and stand in the middle of the food court, facing away from the entrance, you will see, high on the wall overhead, a large mural by William Wegman entitled “Acadia” (2007). “Acadia” refers to Maine’s picturesque national park on Mt. Desert Island, and Wegman has selected one of its many vistas as a backdrop for an array of lounging Weimaraners. The mural was “commissioned by the Maine Turnpike Authority and the citizens of Maine, administered by the Maine Arts Commission, ‘Building Maine Communities through Art.’”

Perhaps a bunch of friendly, happy dogs set against the ocean and sky is just the thing to make the weary traveler’s heart a little lighter. If an artist can accomplish this, surely he has done something useful, perhaps the only useful thing an artist can do. Maybe, looking at Wegman’s mural next to the Burger King marquis and the Hershey stand, I feel a little better myself.

“SKULL AND VASE (SOURCE),” 2010. Oil on linen, 17 1/2
“SKULL AND VASE (SOURCE),” 2010. Oil on linen, 17 1/2" x 18 1/2".

“Well, when you die, you become a part of everything else. I think Berthot sort of solves the problem there.”
“Of being a thing and a mind?”


At the Betty Cunningham gallery, in the front room, hangs Jake Berthot’s “Skull and Vase (Source)” (2010). In an exhibition of landscapes it is the only still life. At its center is a skull, lit from above, slightly stage right, so that its left eye cavity dissolves in a sienna-gray soup beneath a glowing cranial orb. The light also catches the right cheekbone and a foreground vase on the left, which seems to be illuminated by another, closer light source, emanating from its left. The background is a haze of earth tones, highlighted by strokes of ochre that, unexpectedly, form a row of crosses floating unobtrusively at the picture’s top right.

We are already what we will become. There is no life without death. There is no mind without the body that carries it. Consciousness exists in objects. My consciousness exists in what I perceive and in what perceives me. The foregrounded vase is every bit as real and essential a thing as the skull that rests behind it. They require one another, not just in the painting, but in reality, in order to be known at all. Berthot’s “Source” is also his destination, the vessel that carries him, and the air on which he moves.

You have to struggle to understand Jake Berthot’s paintings emotionally, and then to confront his dilemma. His painting acknowledges Albert Pinkham Ryder, Rembrandt, Turner (perhaps only in part), and European Romanticism as it presides over the American landscape, and insists on grappling with it all. So, if we care at all, we struggle with Berthot, stuck with the past and the particular demands of the present. Even if we do finally get around to Berthot himself, to the man’s identity within all this history, we are further challenged (more struggle) to love him despite the austere demands his painting places on us.

“Oh, I almost don’t want to say it because I already know the counter-argument.”
“To say what?”

“When I feel best and most alive, I feel connected to everything, like a flower in the snow.”

“What’s the counter-argument?”

“That there is a coherent sense to the self—the thinking self—that recognizes itself as thinking and as existing. It just makes dying so much more difficult.”


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2011

All Issues