It’s no accident that sometime around the 2016 elections I began to think about dams, particularly the Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams, both on the Colorado River. I looked to these audacious constructions inserted into the pristine Southwestern landscape as a way to consider our national identity at a turning point in both our political and environmental history. The HalfEmptyHalfFull paintings that emerged are relatively frontal, confrontational, and solid. The glowingly opaque dams meet the screechingly pigmented canyon walls and waterways along an electrifyingly sharp but wandering line of contact.
To me, the dams speak loudly of our national urge to dominate nature in order to deepen our purchase on the land and create wealth. Starting with America’s 19th century white settlers and explorers, a steady stream of people spread out across the country, all eyes looking ahead without concern for the messy trail left behind. Operating under the protective umbrella of manifest destiny, we believed ourselves divinely entitled to alter the landscape by damming rivers and creating vast bodies of water, transforming the movement of water into energy, and transmitting that energy thousands of miles in order to build new cities in deserts. Whereas we once looked to nature for a sense of awe, these days we are more likely to look to the stupendous products of our own hands for that experience.
The consequences of our actions have been mixed, a reality reflected in these majestic dams, both heroic and doomed. Some of the large ones, built to last 750 to 1,000 years, will most likely be decommissioned as climate change makes the water they depend on scarcer. But the sheer amount of concrete used in their construction makes the structures impossible to remove. The dams are beautiful, iconic forms that are likely to endure as monuments to our American hubris and greed—shortsighted interventions become leftovers in the landscape.
My most recent series, Monuments and Markers, Boulders and Borders, extends my inquiry beyond dams to other constructions—natural and man-made—found in the landscape. Using images of rocks as metaphors for all that is solid, I am painting my way through new questions about the precariousness of cultural constructs and truths we presume to be eternal. With the 2016 elections now more than two years behind us, I wonder aloud in my work about where we are headed as a nation: Will we adhere to national ideals we once thought immutable, or will we find ourselves in a time when, as observed by Karl Marx, “all that is solid melts into air”?
ARTerrain Gallery by Judith Belzer Dams, Heroic and Doomed | Paintings
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About the Artist
Judith Belzer lives and works in Berkeley, California. Her work explores human engagement with the natural world, often looking to man-made landscapes in order to consider this dynamic and sometimes uncomfortable relationship.
Born in Chicago, Belzer graduated magna cum laude from Barnard College with a degree in English. She went on to attend the New York Studio School, which granted her a summer term at the Yale School of Art and Music. Belzer lived for many years on the East Coast, first in New York City and then in rural New England before moving to the West Coast in 2003. She was awarded a residency at the Yaddo Foundation in 2007 and a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship in 2014. She is a visiting lecturer in the Department of Visual Art and Environmental Studies at Harvard University. Her work has been shown regularly throughout the United States in museums and galleries and in a variety of publications, and has been acquired by many private and public collections. Most recently her work was included in exhibitions at the Berkeley Art Museum, San Francisco Contemporary Jewish Museum, and Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art.