Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Artist Profile: Beth Love

At any given time, there are a handful of artists worth noting. Right now, the one I find the most interesting is the New Mexican artist, Beth Love. If you've seen any of her paintings (preferably in person), I don't need to explain to you what makes Ms. Love's art stand out from the crowd. For everyone else, by all means, seek out her art and judge for yourself. Unfortunately, that may be easier said than done since Beth Love remains remarkably little known on the American art scene (Berlin, Germany—however—is another story).

Ms. Love got her start as a commercial artist, painting backgrounds for Joel-Peter Witkin. It was a good match. Witkin's photos often reference the photography of late-nineteenth century America—a subject that Ms. Love references often in her work.

Self taught, she brings none of the baggage of the art school graduate to her work. And yet, her skill with a brush makes it absurd to lump her in with the often crude efforts of most folk artists. The lazy reviewer might be tempted to compare her art to the work of Grant Wood—if Grant Wood had been chained in a basement as a child. The paintings show seemingly idyllic scenes of rural life, but, in Beth Love's world disaster and horror are seldom far away. "First Communion" looks innocent enough upon first glance. A lovely young lady sits in a garden, apparently content to the world. The scene seems serene and idyllic. It isn't until a moment later that you notice she is sitting on a cage containing two rabid wolves. Then, as you began to examine to picture more, you start to notice other details, and the picture gets more and more bizarre.

First Communion

Beth Love returns often to the American West. Many of her paintings get their energy from the friction between organized religion and reason. This is undoubtedly due in part to her New Mexican roots. It was here that the Protestant forces of the United States fought the Catholic forces of Mexico for sovereignty over the land; where the Mormons defined the outer limits of Deseret—their planned territory for LDS procreation until the U.S. government whittled their ambitions down to Utah; where the Penitentes hike up the hills whipping themselves every step of the way to show fealty to a God that was forced upon them centuries earlier.

Her fascination with religious zealotry as cultural detritus brings to mind Clovis Trouille, but unlike the French surrealist, she's in no hurry to condemn its practitioners. Nor is there any of the reflexive anger that permeates Trouille's work. For Love, human behavior is akin to the strange behavior exhibited by some insects and birds. It is fascinating, bizarre, and, at times, completely incomprehensible, but always worthy of study. In "Miss Otis Regrets," a group of women sits in front of a cabin, their faces covered with scarves. One holds a shotgun and is apparently about to execute a blindfolded woman sitting in their midst. One could ask why, but Beth Love's work makes it readily apparent that asking why may lead to the same madness it tries to understand.

Miss Otis Regrets

On one hand, her painting reflects a great appreciation and respect for lost ways of life; of times when humankind and nature had wrestled each other to an uneasy stalemate. But her work demonstrates none of the utopian folderol that is too often attached to this natural existence. Nature may seem cruel, she reminds us, and living with nature does not mean things always work out well.

Nor does it mean that humans—stripped of the artificiality of urban life—will suddenly lose their propensity for perversity. In Love's world each person is a cabinet of curiosities that deserves study. Sometimes. her paintings reflects this attitude literally, with the central picture surrounded by scenes of varying oddity and intensity. What, for instance, is going on in "A View of Hinterhof?" You could spend an hour poring over this picture and never be sure of what your seeing. There are clues scattered throughout the painting, but Beth Love leaves it up to the viewer to tie everything together.

A View of Hinterhof

In Love's world, humans remain flawed and dangerous, and endlessly fascinating for it.

1 comment:

faoladh said...

I know that it's been a few years since you wrote this, but thank you. I have long liked Beth Love's work, but had lost track of her in the forest of media. I'm very pleased to find that she's still around.

Also, particularly thank you for including "First Communion", which was the piece that initially drew me to her work.