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Sending clear and subversive messages

November 16, 2007|Leah Ollman | Special to The Times

Eric Beltz writes like a schoolteacher and swears like a dockworker. He draws with extraordinary control and sends his mind wandering with abandon. His first solo show in L.A., at Acuna-Hansen, is a fascinating display of colliding temperaments, amazing skill, irreverent humor and thoughtful cultural scrutiny.

Beltz calls what he does "high definition drawing." Working in graphite on smooth Bristol paper, he articulates every leaf and log in his pictures with the kind of illustrational clarity that typically serves an equally clear message. Beltz, though, is an equal opportunity subversive, and he uses the tools of precise description to relay the uncertain, ambiguous, projected and imagined.

He takes aim mainly at Americana and the foundational myths of our country. One drawing, titled with a curse directed at a tree, pictures George Washington seated on a chunk of the sawed-down tree, an allusion to the legendary felled cherry. With his right hand, Washington appears to bless a decapitated owl on the tree's stump, and toward his other side a snake coils under the words "Never Surrender."

Beltz annotates the image with phrases in clean cursive -- "How long a'dying the world is; How obstinately determined to live on," among others -- and stately Gothic script. All feed into a symbolically dense tableau about divine right, the struggle to survive and the tension between so-called civilization and nature. Like all of Beltz's imagery, the scene has a pristine stillness, but that harmony is shot through with anger and aggression.

Throughout his work, Beltz tends to separate heads from bodies, leaving blank space where necks would be. The disconnection seems gratuitous at first, but nothing here is unintentional or arbitrary. In the image of Washington, as in others, the gap captures the idea that thought can operate independent of action, that sense often separates itself from might -- a theme that threads all too persistently through American history. Driving the notion home even more graphically, Beltz draws the "head" of the fallen tree as a tight spherical mass of leafless branches, a wondrous cranial network with severed stem.

In other drawings from a series called "American Visions," Beltz has Thomas Jefferson issuing a barbed farewell to his political successors and Benjamin Franklin stoking a fire labeled the "Breath of Satan" while bats and a wild turkey flutter overhead. In another image, three colonial soldiers with bony skulls ingest a hallucinogenic weed while the Jamestown fort burns in the background.

Beltz's work buzzes with anachronisms and fruitful contradictions. He draws plants with the accuracy of a botanist and the symbolic intent of a religious painter from a much earlier era. The snippets of text that factor into every image oscillate between contemporary curses and biblical condemnations, moralistic aphorisms and stark bursts of hostility, all written in lettering either quaintly polite or authoritative. If fonts could be accused of abuse of power, Beltz would likely identify himself as a willing accomplice.

His historical riffs are smart in all senses of the word -- intelligent, cheeky, stinging. The work feels visually reverential but seethes with informed despair. Each vignette swarms with urges and drives (self-righteousness, escape, violence, contempt) that define America as cannily as Beltz's primer-like simplicity of presentation. "HISTROY!" is the title the artist gives his show: a battle cry collapsing the distance between "history" and "destroy"?

Acuna-Hansen Gallery, 427 Bernard St., L.A., (323) 441-1624, through Nov. 24. Closed Sunday through Tuesday.

A brief, intriguing introduction

The two sculptural installations and five drawings in Ree Morton's show at Overduin and Kite aren't enough to fully introduce the late artist, but they do offer a mildly intriguing peek at her sensibility and a sampling of her sense of touch.

The pieces date from the middle of Morton's truncated career: She earned her MFA in 1970 and was killed in a car accident in 1977.

In an interview from 1974, about the time these works were made, Morton likened her process of manipulating and assembling found objects to a kind of drawing. Chance comes into play and, as with much in the assemblage tradition, an overt engagement with time.

"See-Saw" is a sculptural sketch touching on both ritual and play. The central plank that normally serves as a seat is stained a rusty red and balances on a cut log. Backrests, one facing up and the other down, are painted with pictographic diagrams, and the whole is encircled by small, glitter-coated wooden blocks, like the markers of a sundial.

In the other installation, a panel of hemmed but unstretched canvas hangs on the wall, buttressed by three chunks of lumber.

The wood struts seem to extend from slender, stem-like forms painted on the canvas in solid and broken lines against a ground dappled with aqueous jade dots.

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