Since reading From Turnings and Returnings: The Art of Jake Berthot by Gregory Orr over a year ago, I’ve kept the ideas expressed below in my mind desiring ever so much to find my own way to balance that certain sunlit and dark while creating a space that holds and transforms the viewer. Holding them–and me in the making– just through the subtle shifts and turns of color and form. For a long time it has been nature’s skies that have provided me that space and it was only with this most recent painting which was precipitated by a move to a home near Lake Whatcom that I discovered how much water as an element has to offer me in providing a “depth into depth” space to work my paints and technique. There is no poetry here, no Rilke words to supplement the visual sense, but only a desire to respond to and push the paint in a new way, with a new point of view, in a new field of color.
How easy it is to glance at/glance off so much contemporary art. Sometimes it seems partly a result of the postmodern repudiation of subjectivity and passion, which have always relied on images of depth for expression. One of postmodernism’s more dubious contributions is to have substituted surface for depth. As if the self, with its dreams, passions, ideas, and longings can be so easily abolished. Given that Jake Berthot’s recent work has located and explored depth through images drawn from the natural world, and has found a guide in Emerson, we might let the American philosopher’s words orient us in the story of depth in nature and consciousness: “How shallow seemed to me yesterday in the woods the speech one often hears from tired citizens who have spent their brief enthusiasm for the country, that Nature is tedious, and they have had enough of green leaves. Nature and the green leaves are a million fathoms deep, and it is their eyes that are superficial.” This depth of nature is a reservoir of life energy. In the words of the Victorian Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins: “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” The vitalizing depth of nature speaks to the depth of human consciousness. Which is not to say that all is sunlit. If nature can be dark at night, human depths have their own mirroring and corresponding darkness and danger. The same poet, Hopkins, put it this way: “O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap / May who ne’er hung there.” But whether the imagery is of darkness or light, jeopardy or joy, the conversation between self and nature is reciprocal.
Instead of the viewer’s gaze skimming off the surface like a skipped stone as in so much contemporary painting, Jake Berthot’s paintings hold you—stop you and engage you, stir you and disturb you. When you stand in front of one of Berthot’s recent paintings, you immediately become aware of depths in the painting and you are drawn out into them, feel some part of yourself emptying into them. But then the mysterious mutuality of reverie takes hold: into your newly created emptiness, something flows from the painting. And gradually, steadily, the experience of gazing at the canvas becomes a reciprocal emptying-out and filling, an ebb and flow. Depth speaks to depth. And when at last, after successive, calm, reciprocal emptyings and fillings, you break the spell of the encounter, you emerge changed in some quiet but definite way.