relates to both art and life—I try to act in that gap between
the two.” Robert Rauschenberg
think living a conscious and participating life is ultimately a violent
one. No one escapes this. It begins with the act of being born.”
There are certain perks that accrue to earning one’s living as
a writer, a certain legitimacy for insatiable curiosity, an excuse to
show off a few scraps of wisdom—garnered from others more qualified—better
yet, an excuse to indulge my addiction for climbing the horns of dilemmas.
The emotional weather tends to get rather nasty and some of the bruises
are slow to heal—but the view from the top is indescribable—like
nothing and everything you’ve ever seen.
any addiction, this one has a definite downside. All too frequently
I encounter hurt feelings and bruised egos, but causing pain is certainly
not my objective—it’s the predictable side effect of revisiting
the less lovely things we’ve come to tolerate, and examining them
in the clear light of day.
Clark’s recent show at the Black Mountain Center for the Arts
is about that kind of pain … and the courage it takes to confront
it. You don’t have to read the titles to know that her subtext
is the dark side of human experience. I understand it’s a change
in direction that has angered some of her fans, who describe her earlier
works as cheerful, colorful—and bless their hearts—decorative.
anyone who tries to understand a work of art in the context of decorating
their living room is missing the point - although it’s a
mindset that is certainly not confined to Asheville. I once attended
a show of heroic size paintings, in a very crowded New York Metropolitan
Museum— the kind of density where you’d love not to hear
the commentary of the elderly mother and dutiful son in front of you,
but you JUST CAN’T GET AWAY FROM THEM:
People actually buy this? Who has walls this big?
He: Rich people.
work of art is not about fitting in … or solving an empty wall.
It’s about defining a space—a space you might not go to
otherwise. I’m very glad I’ve made the drive to Black Mountain
to see Betty Clark’s work, because that’s what she does.
are only five canvasses in this uncomfortable show, but in her own words,
“This may be my best work, ever.” It is the mid-life work
of a strong, confident painter who makes excellent use of her abstract
style to communicate her simmering outrage. But there is nothing blatant
in her visual references to lost hope, death and powerlessness, instead
she relies on technique and the contrast of color.
make several tours. The Handless Maiden and Terra Ictaris, are so superior,
so compelling, they stop me dead in my tracks. I’m almost relieved
when my sculptor husband, who has accompanied me, points out their wonderful
composition and balance. But others who saw the show used words like
“putrid” and “harsh” to compare these paintings
to her earlier works.
angry reaction is not surprising. Predictability is comfortable, even
in the art world, and change is frightening. No gallery owner wants
to scare away buyers. As for the critics, some of them are serious students
of art and art history, and some are self appointed “mavens.”
Some of them have serous boundary problems. One of the most egregious
examples was Clement Greenberg, an autodidact who became a highly influential
critic and commentator on “modernism”. He was an ardent
supporter of the abstract sculptor, David Smith. “If [Smith] is
able to maintain the level set in the work he has already done,”
he wrote in The Nation, in 1937, “He has a chance of becoming
the greatest of all American Artists.” But when Smith changed
direction and started painting the surfaces of his sculptures, Greenberg
took it on himself to have it scraped off.
outrageous as that is, genuine art critics, no matter how misguided,
seem to really care about art. What makes me shudder are those with
other agendas, like New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s vote-getting
set-to with the Brooklyn Museum, in the guise of protecting Catholic
sensibilities; and the posturing of members of our own city council
regarding the purchase of public art. But they certainly have ample
precedent. William Randolph Hurst and one of his congressman toadies
attempted to get rid of modernism in the name of patriotism, declaring.
“If it [art] doesn’t beautify the country in plain simple
terms that everyone understands, it breeds dissatisfaction. It is therefore
opposed to our government, and those who promote it are our enemies.”
(If this doesn’t remind you of Adolph Hitler on the subject of
“degenerate art” — it should.)
The fundamental job of the artist is to see. What Betty Clark sees is
about damage, loss and mourning. In the words of Robert Motherwell,
“The dilemma of the artist is to absorb the shocks of reality.”
If that creates some disequilibrium—and anger—she’s
got an interesting dilemma.
third floor studio in Riverside Industrial Park is a painter’s
dream—airy, sunny, and wonderfully silent. With neither phone
nor computer, the only twenty-first century touch is the faux oriental
next to her desk. This is clearly a place where the only activity is
making art. I’m especially tantalized by the dozens of canvasses,
hiding their faces from me, against walls, pillars and each other.
sandwiches and champagne (another addiction?) the conversation covers
our common ground; families, marriages, children, getting through school
while raising them as a single mother. But when she gets to the part
where her dying father gave her his blessing to pursue her career as
an artist, our personal paths diverge. I tell her I can’t imagine
my own father making that leap of imagination and I wonder gloomily
how many talented women lose heart, for lack of a father’s approval.
But she points out that she’s had wonderful women mentors, and
I’m forced to admit, blood relationship is not a criteria for
wonderful light in her studio is starting to fade, but I can’t
leave until we look at her earlier work. She arranges the canvasses
sequentially, revealing decades of commitment and growth —and
evolutional change. Repetitive themes begin to emerge; groups of lozenges
in soft grays, flashes of brilliant color floating in large airy fields,
somber references to animals and body parts. Although the lightness
and color remind me of Cy Twombly, I also recognize the chilling vision
of Francis Bacon—a brilliant colorist and master of composition,
whose every painting bears frightening testimony to his belief that
“It is ultimately a violent act to distort the human figure in
It takes genuine courage to embrace such work, but the reward for Betty
Clark is an evocative, gender-neutral style that, in my judgment, sets
her apart from her influences and from most other women artists.
can’t resist pointing out that Bacon is an unlikely hero -
for anyone, much less a product of Southern art education. She laughs
because I don’t know the half of it. Her early summers were spent
with her parents on the grounds of Montreat, right next door to Black
Mountain College, but she was never allowed to set foot on the grounds.
Never the less, she went on to study art at Metairie Park Day School
in Metairie Louisiana, Agnes Scott College in Decatur Georgia and earned
a BVA with honors from Georgia State University.
has been showing, selling, and winning grants and awards since 1988
and her work has been exhibited in a broad range of venues including
numerous galleries in both Carolinas, as well as the influential Fay
Gold Gallery in Atlanta, Georgia, the World Trade Memorial Fund Exhibition
in Brooklyn, New York as well as representation in Stockholm, Sweden.
Clearly, the artist is more than the sum of her parts.
me,” she explains, “Painting becomes a way to transcend
the horrors of the world, while giving expression to it…”
know. I know. I take a last sip of champagne and offer a scrap of wisdom
from T. S. Elliot
be time to murder and create
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you,
And time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
70" x 64" acrylic on canvas
24"x 24" acrylic on canvas
"Terra Ictarus II"
70" x 64" acrylic on canvas
"The Handless Maiden"
70" x 64" acrylic on canvas
"These Afternoons at Dusk, I Think of You"
60" x 54" acrylic on canvas
is a freelance financial writer, specializing in institutional finance.
Her articles are published in financial trade journals all over the
world. But don’t bother to GOOGLE her, they’re all credited
to the executives who employ her. A former ad agency president and enthusiastic
participant of life on the New York fast track, she moved to Asheville
in 2002 with her sculptor husband, Robert Winkler. A mother of three,
a grandmother of four, and the author of three screenplays, she is dealing
with her culture shock by writing a North/South novel under her own