Painting has often offered viewers the pretense of a privileged and idealized way of seeing the world. But Athens-based painter Scott Belville is into upending this notion like a mischievous player overturning the card table when he sees the game is rigged.
For Belville, painting is a process composed of endless choices, points of view and inspiration. What ends up on the canvas is convenience or convention or just whim, perhaps. It’s certainly not anything as concrete or “square” as the truth. His solo show at Sandler Hudson Gallery, “Painting in Reverse,” is a prolonged fugue on how a painter creates and the mad whirl of possibility that eventually leads to a singular painting.
If you are looking for a heady, challenging show, then “Painting in Reverse” could very well be your ticket, even if the overall impression can also feel slightly self-indulgent with the painter enjoying his game of “guess what I’m up to” and not necessarily inclined to take his audience along for the ride. Much of “Painting in Reverse” feels like autobiography mixed up with art history with a dose of Southern gothic thrown into the mix in a bricolage of the artist’s addled imagination.
This Sandler Hudson show comes after a stretch of more than 10 years’ absence from the gallery and long after the retirement in 2014 of this professor emeritus at the University of Georgia.
But Belville has clearly been busy in that interim, with these self-referential and typically beautifully rendered paintings about painting. Belville’s creepy, apocalyptic paintings mash up classical oil painting allusions with contemporary, pop culture riffs that suggest his own point of view, on one hand inspired by the sublime legacy of Italian art and on the other, by the swamp of televised and printed inanity.
Belville’s acrylic and oil paintings in this body of work invariably include a view of a canvas propped on a wooden easel to advertise the very meta-work at hand. Taped to that painting-within-a-painting are images: snippets of famous works like John Everett Millais’ “Ophelia” or from Botticelli or da Vinci alongside images of Bill Cosby or Andy Griffith or Mad magazine’s mascot Alfred E. Neuman and other images torn from magazines and newspapers. Totems of pop culture cynicism collide with imagery suggesting purity and innocence: babies, Jesus, lambs and children from 1950s storybooks.
In “Billboard,” a grim background painting in shades of gray is a landscape of post-apocalyptic hopelessness, of blindfolded people and oil drum fires. Onto that scene Belville tapes images from magazines that offer suggestions of belief systems: Trump or Jesus or a tiny cherub or an oblivious man, prone on the grass ignoring it all.
In this and other works, Belville cycles between two poles, of expressing humanity’s most noble ambitions rendered in images from art history and the visual and moral degradation of a modern life devoid of inspiration or hope. Belville seems to be suggesting his paintings of morning glories, roses, landscapes and cherubs are a kind of willful denial of the present reality.
“Montage of Hopes” is a collection of pre-Raphaelite and other assorted beauties stuck with tape to his paintings’ surfaces. All those pretty faces feel like an expression of the artist’s desire to render perfect beauty or to convey desire, which in Belville’s hands turns into a crowded cataclysm of choices.
Even the simplest of painterly choices — to offer some possibility of optimism or beauty or hope — feels impossible. Those ideals definitely feel crowded out, in Belville’s canvases, by a sense of fatigue and resignation.
“Scott Belville: Painting in Reverse”
Through Oct. 20. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; noon-5 p.m. Saturdays. Free. Sandler Hudson Gallery, 1000 Marietta St. NW, Suite 116, Atlanta. 404-817-3300, sandlerhudson.com.
Bottom line: Heady images and an avalanche of ideas can make this painting show a puzzle some may not be inclined to piece together.
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