Sending Clear And Subversive Messages

By Leah Ollman, Special to The Times 


November 16, 2007

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. <>