Nelleke Beltjens 'Apparently', 2009 - installation view - Hosfelt Gallery, San Francisco

Letter from San Francisco

A few days remain to see the exhibit of works on paper by Nelleke Beltjens at Hosfelt Gallery. Betljens draws in ink on paper, following a rigorous procedure. She lays down a straight guide on the paper, and makes short strokes perpendicular to its edge. The strokes are all two or three millimeters long, and roughly evenly spaced, making a line of irregular density. Placing the guide again, she makes another course of little strokes, and then repeats; gradually, the courses build up a texture. The action of these drawings, their drama, inheres in the variations of the texture. Where the courses cross one another, the strokes meet in herringbone patterns, or in little tangles like an unfamiliar alphabet. Where the courses run roughly parallel, the texture has a direction, as if it had been brushed. If she lets the tails of the strokes press against the guide, or if she continues the course around the corner of the guide, a shadow of the guide itself emerges from the texture; where these shadows cross haphazardly, they occasionally recall a Sol LeWitt wall drawing.

Stepping back, this lively texture coalesces into clouds, or swarms – one or two per picture, or in the very largest, three, with lots of white space between them. The effect is lovely but very restrained. Beltjens has tried minor variations in the procedure – sometimes, for example, she cuts out rectangles from the paper, uses them as guides, and then re-seats them in their places; in some, a rectangle of the inked texture is grafted into a blank sheet. But I still wish for some source of variety from one drawing to the next, or of structure within each drawing, to make more of the ravishing texture.

Richard Mayhew, Santa Fe Trail, 1999

Richard Mayhew, "Santa Fe Trail", 1999

The Museum of the African Diaspora is showing a retrospective of Richard Mayhew (1924 – ), whose work is new to me; he was a member of the Spiral group, alongside Romare Bearden. In his long career, he has made paintings again and again from the same few patterns – really just two. Its not fair, of course, to judge Beltjenss current work against a career longer than her whole life, but Mayhew does show how a narrow formal concern can develop, over time, into a world.

His principal pattern is a landscape, like a passage from Corot: a view rising from earth or grass at our feet to a rise of ground or hills, and the sky beyond. The colors are classically muted: grays, greens, browns, within which the dark blue of distant hills or the deep blue of the sea may luminesce. There are no figures (though samples of his illustration work show he could draw them, and one untypical early piece sets sharp seagulls against a soft marsh). Instead, the protagonists of most of these pictures are trees, standing out more or less dramatically against the strong atmospheric perspective. He works mainly in oil, though there are several drawings, in which he achieved the same effect of depth using only a smoothly sweeping line for shade.

These constraints are narrow, but no narrower than those of Morandi. Within them, Mayhew can vary the arrangement of trees, and the prominence of the various bands of landscape (ground, hill, sky). Sometimes the trunk and branches of the trees are highlighted; more often, the trees appear in silhouette, the radiant energy of their growth implied by brushwork and ragged outline. (Once, he lets the sky show through the upper branches in filigree.) And the band of ground in front is a nearly free element, sometimes green, sometimes fading to brown, or patched with paths or sand dunes.

Mayhews alternate pattern is less conservative: a vein of abstraction, also in blurry horizontal bands, but in fiery colors, often reds or purples. Theres only one such piece in the current exhibition, but there are photographs of several more. And his most recent work is a curious synthesis of the two patterns. These are landscapes permeated with the hallucinatory colors of his abstracts – the sky may be rendered in fierce orange, the ground in salmon, or the emblematic tree in purple or bright green. These make arresting, pretty posters, but Im not quite sure they work; hanging here, they look as though one of his more conventional landscapes is struggling to get out.

The exhibit has been extended, and paintings from parallel shows in Santa Cruz and Santa Clara are being added to it. (I hope these include more of the abstracts.) Catch it, before March 7.

Nelleke Beltjens: Apparently
Dec. 12 – Jan. 23

The Art of Richard Mayhew
Museum of the African Diaspora
Oct. 10 – Mar. 7

Top Photo: Nelleke Beltjens Apparently, 2009 – installation view – Hosfelt Gallery, San Francisco
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