Western North Carolina Woman

“Painting relates to both art and life—I try to act in that gap between the two.” Robert Rauschenberg

“I think living a conscious and participating life is ultimately a violent one. No one escapes this. It begins with the act of being born.”
Francis Bacon

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.

Like 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.

Betty 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.

But 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:

She: People actually buy this? Who has walls this big?
He: Rich people.

A 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.

There 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.

I 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.

The 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.

As 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.

The 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.

Over 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 encouragement.

The 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 painting.”
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.

I 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.

She 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.

“For me,” she explains, “Painting becomes a way to transcend the horrors of the world, while giving expression to it…”

I know. I know. I take a last sip of champagne and offer a scrap of wisdom from T. S. Elliot

There will 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.

Through Grace
70" x 64" acrylic on canvas

"Floating Love"
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

See also bettyclarkpainter.com.


Arlene Winkler 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 name.

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