Margot Bethel On “Departure”
It’s been a year of change for Bahamian artist Margot Bethel. After years of taking part in group shows in Nassau, she returns to the scene with her solo art show, “Departure”, opening at Popop International Center for the Visual Arts this evening.
“I think doing a solo show was a challenge I think I felt I needed to push myself towards,” she says. “For some reason, despite having a difficult year, I decided this would be the year for that.”
The work is a departure from her previous medium of expression. A carpenter and builder by trade, Bethel’s functional and object-based work is well-known locally. However, in “Departure” she creates abstract paintings with sculptural elements that allude to the passage of time and the inevitable human condition of loss and recovery.
One of the central series of paintings in the show, “Protozoan”, all hold layers and layers of paint and finish which Bethel applied over a period of months to uniformly square pieces of wood — portraits that are, in effect, of time.
“Technically I could paint them forever,” says Bethel. “But the idea I was going for was trying to get a visual sense on a two dimensional frame of what it feels like to experience time.”
“It is very subjective and personal; all the symbols and patterns in the painting are personal to me but what I wanted the viewer to feel was a depth to the painting, a falling into the painting.”
Indeed, in these pieces, symbols drift in plain view and, upon closer inspection, linger below newer applications of paint, creating the surface of some murky and ominous body of water that yields no reflection or bottom.
Viewers may find in this exhibition — and especially in her more interactive or sculptural works — a tension between the organic and the industrial, as elements from her carpentry are evident in the building techniques, tools and materials used playfully to create fine artistic work.
“A lot of times when I’m having to form a functional process in my carpentry, for example when I have to remove wood from a piece in order to fit something together, there are tricks of the trade that involve markings on wood,” she explains. “I’ve always been attracted to textures that I’ve learned can be created on wood, and as I’m working I’ve always thought I’d love to play around with this a bit, to see what happens when I deliberately make these markings show up.”
In this series of work, titled “Ascension”, darkly-painted wood is physically burrowed into with a mechanical saw, creating gorgeous patterns that are akin to seismograms — recordings of tumultuous and earth-altering moments. Or perhaps they are flashes of light in a dark expanse — fleeting moments of clarity.
Indeed, Bethel’s work deals with the very nature of chaos, but also the resilience of the human spirit, for in no series is one panel more or less chaotic than the other. Instead, they simply create a movement and a depth through which the patterns change and change again, expressing that human lives are in constant states of change, coming to an acceptable — but unsettling — conclusion of adjustment.
“Science is now talking about something that a lot of spiritual leaders have been talking about since the beginning of time, and that’s that time is not linear,” she explains.
“So then you can say yes, it’s cyclical, but they’re saying that we cannot really understand how time works; we can only approach it, and approach it linearly or cyclically. But it’s possible that everything is happening at the same time. That’s another way of saying that this is the only moment that counts.”
But human beings hardly live their lives that way — defiantly rigid even in the inevitable face of change, for fear of what happens after consumes us. What does it mean to live a life without another person? Is our biggest fear that we go on living? What then?
The textual element in her work alludes to this, as lyrics from two separate songs spell out the despair and anger that spring from this transition: “No me quitte pas” (“Don’t leave me”) and “Je ne quitte pas. Jamais, plus jamais” (“I do not leave. Ever, never ever”).
“I thought, this is perfect because this speaks to the emotions surrounding the process of departing and being departed from,” says Bethel. “I think it’s something we all want to hear when death comes our way or when we lose somebody we love, when a relationship ends, all those things.”
And yet Bethel’s work registers the marks of time, the way we keep within us some emotional souvenirs of the past and hopes for the future, the way we salvage some pieces of the life before with which to build our lives after.
Fittingly, the body of work is created mostly from leftover and discarded materials of her commercial jobs — wood panels and house paint and various finishes — becoming a tribute to the very themes she mediates upon.
“I have been trying for a very long time to make a marriage or communicate a relationship between my day job and what some people might call art — something that’s not necessarily functional,” she says. “But there’s always an element of some other life that the work had.”
“Departure” opens at Popop International Center for the Visual Arts tonight at 6 p.m. and continues until September 3rd. For more information call 322 7834.
The Nassau Guardian
Arts & Culture Section