Hillside House To Host Chantal Bethel Exhibition

Thursday 31st, January 2013 / 00:25 Published by

The Bahamas has a reputation that seems indisputable: endless blue sky, bright sun, hot balmy days, turquoise crystal ocean, soft pale sand, palm trees and flamingos—as an artist to address any of these ubiquitous stereotypes demands a vision beyond typical.

Chantal Bethel has developed a reputation for painting and creating from her soul.  She is impassioned to express whatever moves her.  Thus her art works carry a certain ineffable emotion.  Whether she is addressing the subject of woman, mother and child, or in more recent works, an installation—Poto Mitan: Hopes & Prayers for Haiti—a response to the earthquake tragedy of her birthland, she brings a silent, indomitable emotional intelligence to her works.

There is a swinging shift between themes in Bethel’s work:  At one moment she is dealing with love, a sultry breeze across the canvas, other times she deals in horror and death.

In a recent conversation with the artist in her studio, she explains that after working in the dark subject matter of the Haitian tragedy for a couple of years, she is ready to embrace beauty again—to “exhale from the soul”.

This collection, In the Spirit, which will be exhibited at Hillside House Gallery in February 2013, addresses the surprising and very Bahamian theme of flamingos.

After Poto Mitan, this is her movement back into light; the works are bright and airy.  Soft colour palettes sing.  Pieces are diverse, ranging from paintings on canvas to paintings on wood, and amusing, or tense, sculptures.

But don’t be too beguiled by these entrancing colours and familiar theme of The Caribbean.

At first, the light colours, simple composition, and the well-known form of the flamingo, makes the work seem to be familiar Bahamian paintings, but something about the intriguing textures and almost obsessive use of crackle paint, hints at more.

A second clue is her use of quotes from Rumi, (a Sufi mystic who, through poetry, offers insights into a spiritual life beyond this mundane reality).  The quotes are not titles per se, but suggest at a relationship between his writings and Bethels paintings; a hint of something beyond the surface.

The work is incredibly charming and it is easy to be distracted by their aesthetic appeal.  The surfaces seem to crack open to light and they successfully convey the essence of The Bahamas in their shimmering colour range.  Rich textured surfaces defy gravity and become about light.

And yet, the crackle is still there.

I am struck by a piece (image 1) in which the whole surface is covered in a shiny glaze-like surface, which also allows large cracks to still be seen.  It is as if we are being shown some deeper truth about the nature of reality.  As if the silent glossy cracks expose the truth that the sheen of life is not as implacable as we might believe.

Coupled with the images of flamingos are flamingo eggs; whole egg forms covered thickly in gesso; large carefully cracked open ‘eggs’ with inner Mandalas or sun designs; eggs neatly opened to expose personal myths.  I am intrigued by the sturdy nature of the eggs.

“Eggs are fragile and yet represent hope”, says Bethel.

However her eggs are unyielding. This produces an interesting tension between the highly crackled paintings that look incredibly similar to broken eggshells created into a collage.  As if recognizing the fragile nature of the egg, Bethel inadvertently wants to protect it, and hold it.  Yet in intensified contrast, here are the flamingos: beautiful and insidiously broken.

We talk about life and the symbolism of eggs as part of the life cycle; I sense that Bethel is using her art to process her deeper fears and thoughts about existence. In recognizing the metaphor of the flamingo and egg, I have a suspicion that the new depth of layers in Bethel’s work is more than merely technical.  It is a compelling balance. The beautiful fluid images of flamingos which are corrupted by a coruscated shattering and their eggs which are toughened to protect, gives the viewer a glimpse at hidden layers of life, as complicated, paradoxical, and profound as it can get.

Image 2 seems to hold the balance of the conflicting surfaces.  The body and feathers of the flamingos eyeing each other are created by the crackle effect paint, contrasting with a lightness and sensitive handling of paint to express the flamingos’ neck and head, all this is held in a background of deeper paint textures: resulting in a mesmerizing piece. The viewer is captured by a silent complexity, a tenderness and brokenness delicately held in a kind embrace.

One of the final pieces created for this show are real broken eggs, and following an inner compulsion by Bethel “…then I cracked one and the thought of light came to me, they needed light”, she brings a completion to the works by allowing the true nature of the eggs to reveal a deeper metaphorical purpose by allowing the cracking, or as Bethel concurs “…like your children, you always want to protect them but if you give them wings, they should be ok on their own”.

The circle of broken eggs then becomes a necessary movement in the cycle of life.  Fledglings leave the nest and things have to be broken in order for life to break free. And a complex story of being human with many paradoxical truths; brokenness and beauty; fragility and strength; profound and shallow, seem to be expressed in the hidden narrative of Bethel’s art.

Beyond surfaces, beyond superficiality, is a world as multifarious and singular as Rumi’s, if you are willing to look into the depths beyond the charismatic images, you will find the divine multiplicity of human soul in Bethel’s new works.

Alternatively, just enjoy the sublime and captivating beauty of Chantal Bethel’s art, “In the Spirit”.

by Susan Moir Mackay

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