The Gallery’s fourth exhibition presents the work of one of the country’s most promising and talented artists, Joan Belmar, whose experience as an émigré to the United States is both the subject of his early paintings and a near-perfect example of the consequences of an immigration system that badly needs reform.
The exhibit’s title, “Hidden Treasure,” refers to the more than 100 paintings the artist created during his first eight years in the United States---paintings he kept hidden from public view for fear that their occasional (and always oblique) criticism of the United States, especially the Bush Administration’s foreign policy, might jeopardize the immigration proceedings that would determine whether he could remain in this country and eventually become a U.S. citizen.
Rather than risk being deported for expressing views that were no more radical than those printed daily on the editorial page of The New York Times, Joan Belmar literally buried the paintings he created from 1999 to 2007, depriving himself of the opportunity to show the world his talent and depriving the rest of us of the opportunity to see and learn from the work of an intelligent and extremely gifted painter who may well be one of the most inventive and important emerging artists working in the United States today.
Only now, 13 years after coming to the U.S. and two years after he became a naturalized U.S. citizen, are Belmar’s “Hidden Treasure” paintings (which the artist calls his “America Series” paintings) being shown in public. Until this summer, they remained stacked on tables and shelves in his basement, where the artist had kept them hidden from all but his most trusted friends. It was during our discussions about exhibiting his new ‘Tierra del Fuego’ paintings that I suggested we look through the earlier work to see whether there might not be at least a couple of them worth including in the current show.
One hot afternoon in July, Joan and I spent several hours sorting through dozens and dozens of paintings, many of which he had not seen since he painted them five, 10 or even 12 years ago. To say that what we found was a very pleasant surprise would be the equivalent of saying that Alexander Graham Bell was “pleased” when he heard Watson’s voice at the other end of the line.
What became clear was that Joan Belmar had produced a body of work during his first years in the United States that is extraordinary by any standard: dozens of vivid, inventive and beautifully painted abstract expressionist works that demonstrate the sure hand and creative talent of a great artist.
Ever restless, it is fascinating to see the progression of his visual ideas from their inception in some of the early works to their refinement in later work; how they disappear for a time and then reappear again in his most recent work. For example, the translucent tubes and the grid pattern he begins to experiment with in 2005, and refines through 2007, become the basis for the three dimensional Mylar constructions he began making, and became known for in Washington, beginning in 2008. The grids then re-appear in the “Tierra del Fuego” paintings completed this year (see detail from Tierra del Fuego(Acrylic, ink, gouache, oil and colored pencil, 60” x 84” diptych) 2012.)
While the new work was motivated by a return trip to his native Chile, the “America” series paintings, with titles such as “I Speak Your Language,” “Negro” and “They Want Money?”, are the visual record of a wise and acute observer’s first impressions of the country he wanted to become a citizen of but whose idiosyncrasies and shortcomings he couldn’t help but see.
In contrast to his later work, these early paintings are filled with raw emotion because Belmar was hardly a disinterested observer. All of the strange customs and faults he observed--- along with the many positive qualities and emotions he saw and felt---were also affecting his everyday life as a recent arrival hoping to become a permanent resident and eventually a U.S. citizen.
Judging by the quality and quantity of the work he produced during those first eight years, these underlying emotions and tensions in his life created an enormous burst of energy and creativity in his art. Paintings like “Trip to the Moon,” “America: Monday Morning” and “Like Foam” are wonderful abstract pieces that convey the artist’s feelings. They sweep the viewer into them, providing an opportunity for us to understand and vicariously experience the joys, uncertainties and discomforts of a recent immigrant’s first years in this country.
They also beg the question: How many other émigré artists are hiding their most meaningful work, denying us the opportunity to understand the perspectives--- and the burdens--- of recent immigrants who want to become like us but sometimes fail because of the obstacles we too often inadvertently and unnecessarily put in their way?
By creating an atmosphere that curtails their artistic freedom, we also deny ourselves, both advocates and opponents of more liberal immigration policies, the opportunity to fairly assess the contribution these artists and other immigrants could be making to our nation’s cultural life. For this reason, CHARLES KRAUSE/REPORTING FINE ART believes the timing of this exhibit, during the months before and after the Presidential election, is important.
HIDDEN TREASURE is as much a survey of the artist’s paintings to date as it is a debut because of his decision not to exhibit his ‘America’ paintings when they were first created,. The exhibit covers work produced over a period of 12 years, beginning in 2000 just a few years after Belmar first began working as an artist in Chile and including his most recent paintings, the “Tierra del Fuego” series from this year (2012). More controlled and precise than his earlier work, these new paintings memorialize the customs and rituals of the now extinct Selk’nam people, the original inhabitants of sections of Tierra del Fuego in southern Chile.
The new work differs from the ‘America’ paintings both stylistically and in its intent, which is, according to the Artist’s Statement which accompanies the exhibit, to call attention to what he considers a grave injustice: “how politics, modernization and human greed affected the life of these (Selk’nam) people---to the point of annihilating them.”
Whereas the ‘America’ paintings reflect the artist’s personal feelings and observations with no intention of influencing public opinion or changing governmental policy, the “Tierra del Fuego” series is motivated by the artist’s social concerns and has the clear political intent of rallying world opinion to prevent the forces he mentions from annihilating still-extant indigenous peoples elsewhere in Latin America and beyond.
To make his point crystal clear, he goes so far as to interject realism into the abstraction of several of the Tierra del Fuego paintings by drawing identifiable figures of Selk’nam elders and initiates in their ceremonial robes and hoods (see the figure at the top right of Alcalufe #1). Both the figures and the Series itself were inspired by HAIN: Ceremonia de Iniciacion de los Selk’nam de Tierra del Fuego, an anthropological study by Anne Chapman recently published in Chile, which contains photographs taken in 1923 of the Selk’nam in ceremonial garb.
Less than half a century later, in 1966, the last of the Selk’nam died. They and their ancient culture were no more. And, were it not for Joan Belmar’s arresting and beautifully drawn “Tierra del Fuego” paintings, few outside Chile would have ever known of the Selk’nams’ existence. Nor would we have had the information to consider the implications of their fate.
Thus, the “Tierra del Fuego” paintings are an excellent example of the art which CHARLES KRAUSE/REPORTING FINE ART is dedicated to showing and gaining public acceptance of--- socially and politically engaged art which the Gallery classifies as “the art of social and political change.”