The American Southwest only seems barren, with roadways stretching into desiccated plains dotted with the dried bones of log cabins, carrion birds, and scrubby plants that struggle (or is it thrive?) in the sun. Yet, this bleached scenery contains inspiration, too. The kind artist Eric Beltz works into graphite drawings of geometric precision, blending landscape with an interest in cultures both near and far and a vision of America’s past, present, possible future.
Death From Below, by Eric Beltz. Graphite on Bristol; 11″ x 9″; 2012.
Beltz’s progression can be intuited through an increasingly complex vocabulary of images and patterns that have been combined with the signs of nature and antique America: boyscouts, cross-stitching, that desert road with the cabin, and lots of birds. Beltz has been teaching classes on volumetric rendering, and birds have been recent subjects. They appear, wings spread out, attempting to envelop the paper, or reach out at the viewer. These images are arresting, hypnotic even, and I found myself becoming lost inside them.
Baudrillard (himself so enamored with the hallucinatory qualities of Southern California) said of America that it “ducks the question of origins; it cultivates no origin or mythical authenticity.” This tension is at the core of Beltz’s method of seeking inspiration: a kind of strained eclecticism that results from surfing through books on ethnobotany, the exploits of nineteenth-century anthropologists and naturalists, lines from movies, all of which he de-contextualizes then restructures. “It comes from different places that don’t belong together,” he says, “but where they belong is in me because they’re all my interests.”
Doubt Knot by Eric Beltz. Graphite on Bristol; 11″ x 9″; 2014
Indeed, from this hodge-podge emerges a coherency, a personal, if obscured, surreal narrative woven throughout. “Part of it is intuitive,” says Beltz, “developing the content of a drawing has to do with going through different informational sources, and being inspired by them and wanting to tell a story about them.” With drawings of otherworldy yet familiar dreamscapes inspired by the ethnobotany and anthropology of the Americas, Beltz’s work can be situated within a visionary tradition. He likens his drawing to a shaman’s “ritual emptying of the self.”
What Beltz has struggled with over the years is how to first “look at other cultures and then look at my own culture through a new lens,” and then work out how his images can be grounded in a context that is innately familiar to him, but open to cross-cultural understanding. Having grown up in Orange, California, it is a landscape full of junked Americana that most explicitly bridges this gap, giving the exhibition a cabinet of wonder feel. Several drawings resemble, to an obsessional detail, cross-stitching that might hang over the family china hutch, if not for the lack of color, which makes them seem as if they came out of a dot-matrix printer, and odd, incantatory words that are spelled out. Others draw on that dead grass hardscrabble landscape of pioneering (as in “Death from Below” or “Spirits”, two of the most hallucinatory images from his recent exhibit, Dreveriem at Koplin del Rio Gallery in Culver City.)
Spirits by Eric Beltz. Graphite on Bristol; 19″ x 17″; 2013.
One can start to see how Beltz’s method works: “I translate everything into this certain style or technique, so I can look at a picture of a barrel, or a picture of a cabin, and a picture of a tree or a roof or a log, or just invent stuff and then reconstitute it so it all comes together.” And it comes together with a distinctly California weirdness, that inexplicable feeling you get when you realize you can’t remember the last time it wasn’t bright and sunny out. Pencil works well here and is a particularly good medium for presenting the self-effacing nature of the region.
When I asked Beltz how he wants others to see his work, he points to its detail-obsessed quality. In geometry, repetition, and symbols he speaks to those “who can get lost inside an image or pictorial space” and appreciate also the technical level of detail that goes into the work. He sums this up, noting, “There’s an amount of love in my work and I think that people can recognize that, if you’re going to make the effort to make a drawing like that, you must love it.”