“No ideas but in things”
—William Carlos Williams, “A Sort of a Song”
Every artist has antecedents. The very best of artists understand that a ruthless search for absolute originality will be fruitless. Viewers need a touchstone, a place of entry to begin the dialogue that any successful work of art provokes. “Great artists steal” has become a clichéd notion often ascribed to Picasso or, in modified form, to T. S. Eliot. Conversely, weaker artists often fail to do little more than imitate their betters. But once in a great while, an artist emerges who presents us with a gift of magisterial synthesis. An artist who understands and lives in their present while creating an alchemy of past artistic realizations coupled with a totally modern sensibility.
Bethann Moran-Handzlik is an artist for whom the genius of the past finds expression in works of contemporary beauty, grace, and emotional depth. At the last third of the 19th century, a movement of painters emerged in Europe, beginning in France and finding depth of intensity and style in Holland with the Hague School and Scotland with The Glasgow Boys. The best exponent of this was a Frenchman named Jules Bastien-Lepage. Known as the naturalist branch of the realist movement, these artists sought to find emotional, transcendent, and intellectual truth in what others dismissed as the ordinary and the pedestrian.
Bethann is their corporeal and spiritual heir. For her, paint, specifically oil paint because of its unique properties of transparency and opacity, capacity to be reworked, resistance to instantaneity, and its very physicality, informs the slow, intense observational and meditational approach to her subjects. In her words, “Painting acts as a prosthetic of vision.” It enables all of the attendant characteristics of vision, not just seeing. Vision as a means of understanding. It allows her to enter into the polarized mystery of both what is and is not present in the objects and subjects of her work. There exists a deception, not with ill intention, designed to ask the viewer to seek out what’s being created with the presentation of just a few seemingly unremarkable, even mundane, objects arranged with subtlety and suggestion in a landscape both conditioned and wild.
Every painting is a conflation of different aspects or qualities. Of course, it begins with an idea, a subject for investigation and rumination, accompanied by an object or set of objects which best give voice to the expression of the idea. Object becomes subject which creates an opportunity for both the artist and viewer to use the visual world as a means to something deeper and more meaningful. And this is all measured and mediated through process: the design—abstract elements and principles that govern successful visual organization— and the manufacturing—the act of manipulating material in such a fashion to maximize the expressive intention, the visual fealty, and the full potential of a medium to act upon the viewer both as a lens to the artist’s mind and the greater insight into the painting’s potential for transformation and insight that cannot be otherwise intuited or spoken.
Bethann uses images in much the same way as a poet uses words. Metaphor, analogy, description, sentiment, insight, all of the techniques that transport a reader of poetry become the visual tools she uses to move the viewer into a realm beyond conscious thought—a realm of intense feeling and optical immersion. More importantly, as Bethann emphasizes, it’s the physicality of oil paint which provides the current which sweeps the viewer along.
She’s a plein air painter, one who works outside in observed nature. But unlike many of the artists who are part of the plein air movement, Bethann does not present as an a la prima painter, one who relies on quick decision making and wet into wet techniques for dramatic effect. Hers is a contemplative engagement, sometimes taking weeks to complete even in the bitter cold and stinging winds of Wisconsin winter. Her painting of a bee box in the snow, done in her backyard with her brushes taped to her gloves because her fingers become too numb to grip, or the remains of clumps of brussels sprouts lying in the frozen ground stubbornly clinging to their fading greenery are the product of hours and days of careful, reimagined, and reexamined attention to all aspects of the visual sensation. The process by which the image emerges does not conform to any single strategy for its making. The dense tapestry of marks, blended, scraped, flickered, dragged, stippled, and thickly impastoed upon the surface, cannot be simply unwoven. The Gordian knot of marks and brushwork adds to the visual and poetic mystery and intention of her painting.
An observer of her work will soon realize a number of things; her early training and output as an abstract painter has left her with an unusually deep sensitivity to the surface qualities of her paintings. There is nothing hurried or glib about the patina of her work. Furthermore, it becomes apparent that she is comfortable challenging the viewer’s assumption about the translation of three-dimensional space into the optical frisson of losing one’s balance, falling into the work because Bethann has managed to tip the picture plane down towards the viewer’s feet and then gradually sweep up to a far horizon presented at the viewers eye level. And finally one must apprehend her use of repeated objects and elements. In particular, she’s a master of elliptical form, the ellipse being the visual description of a circle in perspective as seen from changing points of view. These circles, as properties of urns or flower pots or plates or reflective ponds or discarded children’s toys, serve as reminders of her search for clarity, unity, purity of form, divine symmetry, or even suggestions of the infinite.
In her paintings, the most salient quality is truth—the truth of her engagement with her subject and the truth of her integrity as an artist of exquisite faith. She is simply a master painter offering us a glimpse of true reality.
See more of Bethann’s work and in-progress images at bethannmoran.com , her Instagram @pasmeche, and Edgewood Orchard Gallery in Fish Creek, WI.
Chris Gargan is a landscape artist and freelance writer working from his farm southwest of Verona. You can find his work at Abel Contemporary Gallery in Stoughton. He is seen here with his dog Tycho Brahe.