Writing Archive

George Bethea, Prajna: Color and Light

catalog essay, Dorsch Gallery, April 14, 2007

George Bethea evinces a trait that you don't commonly see associated with the artist's temperament: humility. I'm not talking about his personal demeanor, although it manifests there too, to his credit. (This is of no consequence except for the record. Perfect louts have made great art. Let history not include George among them.) George, rather, has artistic humility.

Making abstract work involves a lot of reflection. Even in work like this, in which paint must be put down with verve and speed, the artist has to spend a lot of time looking at the results and evaluating them. An area of paint has either come to rest in an optimal shape, density, transparency, hue, texture, and relationship to nearby areas, or it hasn't, and thus something needs to be done. But what? It depends. You decide by paying a lot of attention to your gut reactions about pleasing forms.

This is where humility comes in. Humility is the mechanism by which you discard that which stands between your awareness and your gut reactions to form. Many things can get in the way. You might be trying to carry over a success from a previous painting that doesn't apply to the one in front of you. You might have a combination of colors in mind that looks better in your head than in real life. A good form put down by accident might look inappropriate at first because it comes as a surprise. Basically, the willed effort that one puts into most projects in life is a failed strategy in this kind of abstract painting. It interposes barriers between the self that feels and the self that acts. Removing them means admitting that your cleverness does not apply. But to a great extent it doesn't, and that's the end of that. Seung Sahn, a Korean Zen master whose teachings George has practiced for over two decades, advised thusly: Only don't know.

What does apply? The ability to detect good abstract strategies, and use them in imaginative and personal ways. George, throughout his working career, has absorbed ideas about form-making from most of the major abstractionists and a few of their predecessors, notably Matisse. This latest round of works sometimes recalls those of the recently lost and greatly missed Jules Olitski. But it's not enough to borrow the shapes of other painters - one has to understand in one's viscera why they work in the first place. It's tempting to attribute the ability to do so to a sublime psychic harmony, especially in George's case, with works entitled Heart of Prajna and Life Source, and compositions that evoke supernovas and irradiated stellar clouds. This is as good of an explanation as any. We don't really know, but we can see in the results here that the artist has achieved something wonderful.

We could think of them as symphonies of materials. We might approach abstraction in general this way, but the idea applies especially aptly to George's paintings. They organize on the basis of value differences, which is why the astonishing colors don't defeat them. But a lot of the incidental pleasures of the work, the little nuances that reward prolonged viewing, derive from the use of acrylic mediums impregnated with glitter, texturing agents, refracting pigments, and viscosity-altering additives. He allows textures to build into reliefs. I suspect that they would work even without any color whatsoever, just black, white, and gray; tweaking their reproductions on a computer seems to indicate as much. They have a baroque attitude, and while I'd stop short of calling them sculptural, I could imagine George somehow juicing a Bernini and making liberated abstract paintings with the liquid.

And yet, these are not merely upright trays of lumpy paint. They express profound, baseless pleasure, a kind of distilled joy that exists because the human eye exists. Their forms and colors are sometimes comic in their insouciance. Yet they compose, and are as delighting as birdsong. You can't coax this kind of feeling from paint without first realizing that painting, in a sense, is greater than you are: a wellspring of delectation available to all who will have it. With that grasped, one serves beauty. Serving as well as George does, one becomes its hero.

Word count: 706

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