Eric Beltz has referred to his exquisite graphite-on-Bristol work as “high definition drawing.” He exercises tight formal control, articulating human figures, animals and plants with pristine clarity and crisp palpability. Thematically, he is unconstrained, generating mystical, moralizing mashups having to do with transformation, violation, retribution and reckoning. There is a faint whiff of regionalist nostalgia in Beltz’s farmland settings, but he deheroizes the genre, just as he turns scenes reminiscent of Northern Renaissance painting in their seamless integration of the literal and symbolic into irreverent investigations of what might have been and what might yet be.
In his first show at this gallery, in 2008, Beltz, who lives in Santa Barbara, focused largely on our nation’s foundational myths and its flawed founding fathers. The recent work (2009 to ’11) continues to engage with and undermine Americana, especially the four drawings based on needlework samplers. Beltz’s adaptations (made by meticulously shading small gridded squares) demonstrate his handwork skills, much as colonial samplers showed off the talents of the girls and women who made them, but Beltz tweaks both form and content.Applying his technique to a low-tech craft yields a marvelous kind of analog pixelation, an Op-art buzz that nodssimultaneously to its manual source and to its digital counterpart. While channeling the past, he ironically declaims the merits of historical amnesia, as conveyed by the truism pseudo-stitched on Elementary Forces 4: “Happy is that people who have no history.”
Several of the dozen other drawings in the show (ranging in size from 8 by 11 to 60 by 40 inches) take on origin stories of a biblical bent. Noah’s Sailboat depicts a perversely lyrical shipwreck. The humble vessel is shaped of leafless, muscular branches and seems to be at once adrift upon and growing out of a gently rolling wave of snow. Casualties tucked in among the sinuous trunks include bison, deer, swans, rams, bears and raccoons. Drunk Jesus Calendar stars the purported son of God as a tippling slacker slumped down in a vineyard spiked with prefiguring symbols: crownlike barbed wire entwined around a nearby post; tall, raptor-perch crosses in the distance. Written in cursive among the grapevines is a quote from the philosopher/mystic Meister Eckhart that provides a rationale for Jesus imbibing his own symbolic blood: “There is something that enlivens us when joined with our body.”
Snippets of text appear throughout Beltz’s work—exclamations, stories and warnings drawn from the Bible, the writings of Benjamin Franklin and Hunter S. Thompson, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Upanishad and books on botany. Spelling out profane curses in polite cursive or authoritative Gothic script adds yet more disjunction to the already deliciously complicated fields of Beltz’s drawings. Bitterness and faith—swearing at and swearing by—converge neatly in these captivating visions.
Photo: Eric Beltz: Elementary Forces 4, 2011, graphite on Bristol, 17 by 14 inches;at Morgan Lehman.