by Linda Trappey Dautreuil, photos by Candra George
THE YEAR 2015 was an important year for New Orleans-based artist Aron Belka. It was a year when his monumental oil portraits appeared before audiences with a taste for the drama and expressiveness that a larger-than-life image provides. The paintings are boldly gestural in the application of paint and expertly balance subtle, non-verbal qualities in the expression of his subjects. The Altruist, a portrait of the artist’s wife, Lina Moses, is an example of what is possible in the hands of an artist working on a surface 80 inches square—one who knows his subject well and who is capable of translating what he knows into visual terms resonant with a larger audience.
I first saw the painting at the St. Tammany Art Association in Covington on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of The Summer Show, a national juried exhibition. The Art House on Columbia Street is large and exerts a quirky and appealing vibe between exhibitions. I heard that the first of the 60 selections by juror Don Marshall, director of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation, had arrived. I was anxious for a sneak peek. Quite simply, the painting commanded the space. As other excellent paintings and sculptures appeared, The Altruist held its own. Despite the scale, there was an intimacy about the painting, allowing fine works on a smaller scale to hang harmoniously. Belka received the Best in Show Award and a monetary prize for the portrait, only one of many accolades he received shortly before and after the exhibition. At the end of the evening, the most-asked question was, “Who is Aron Belka?”
Raised in Salt Lake City, Aron Belka earned a bachelor of fine arts from Utah State University with a focus on illustration. His background training was solid in classical training, but it did not allow enough free time for exploring self-expression, an area of interest for Belka. Equipped with an ability to compose space and render realistic subject matter, Belka took up his camera, headed for New York and then Portland, Oregon. He began to use photography as a resource for his paintings. Eleven years ago, he moved to New Orleans, right before Hurricane Katrina roared through and the monumental human tragedy of the rising water. By then, he had already experienced the particular allure of the city, so deep in the South, but so different from the stereotypes, truly unique and precariously positioned, considering its many resources. Belka, like many others, was compelled to document the aftermath of the storm and extended his research to include the Gulf Coast.
When Belka first arrived in New Orleans, he had been making abstract paintings for some time. His desire to explore more expressive means in the years after leaving school propelled him in this direction. The freedom of a variety of materials and applications appealed and enriched his process and the surfaces of his paintings. The assortment of tools he frequently uses include ink brayers, squeegees and all sizes and shapes of brushes. Of these preferences he says, “I make marks that offer a minimal amount of information to suggest an idea. I enjoy this method particularly on larger canvases because it promotes more physical participation and expression.”
Belka is particularly interested in the color-filled, large-scale, gestural abstract paintings of Joan Mitchell. On one of his trips to New York, he also discovered the fleshy, monumental figurative works of contemporary British painter Jenny Saville. The strong graphic skills of both artists combined with visceral applications of paint influence Belka’s abstract paintings and figurative works, both large and small.
Belka notes creative people evolve constantly. He considers the possibility that moving south for the first time gave him time to explore options for his work during the long drive—a return to figurative work in a different way might be possible in the future. Little did he know that his destination would soon be the scene of immense and dramatic change requiring extraordinary resiliency. He was forced to consider reality differently, and he realized that it was not only the impact of disasters but the ensuing consequences that mattered. Armed with his camera, he spent time documenting the people and the places along the eastern Gulf Coast moving forward in the process of recovery. The idea expanded as he turned his attention southwest. He visited areas in Plaquemines Parish where Isaac inundated Pointe á la Hache and went further west to areas affected by Hurricane Rita, small fishing communities such as Delcambre, Louisiana, where the livelihood of people is dependent on the viability of bodies of water adjacent to wetlands.
For nine months, Belka’s photographic expeditions included images of people engaged in a struggle to restore their way of life. Most interesting to him was his growing understanding of the fishing industry and the important place it holds in Louisiana culture. His images included people born in Louisiana whose families had fished for years and Vietnamese communities who came to Louisiana because of opportunities to use their expertise as fishermen. Most shared an understanding of French.
When he returned to New Orleans, he began a new series of paintings, Working the Wetlands, which included large-scale portraits of many of the people he met and came to know. He began to vary his scale to include images of the land, water, boats and animals inhabiting the wetlands. “What resonated from my research was the resilience of those whose livelihoods are rooted in the surrounding wetlands. The paintings are a frame of reference that combines the measureable with the abstract.”
Belka uses photography as source material in his process. He has a large monitor in his studio that expands his images. His process includes drawings, first close and then distant. He walks back and forth, constantly integrating the background and figure with brushwork. Sometimes he starts the painting using only abstract shapes. Next, he draws into the shapes to allow the image to evolve. He recognizes the differences between abstraction and representation but skillfully uses both to create strong presence. Where photography is limited, paint is more pliable and expressive for achieving the nuanced details on the visage of his subjects. The use of under-painting is new to Belka’s process. His backgrounds are very gestural, and the surface is built in layers. He prepares several canvases at once, begins drawing and eventually applies the paint wet on wet. Careful consideration of the elements of value, color, edges and movement of lines and shapes are important skills. Belka’s attention to such details in dialogue with the subject of the figure give his paintings an expressive edge.
The series Working the Wetlands, exhibited at Lemieux Gallery on Julia Street in New Orleans from December 2015 to February 2016, included large portraits of people Belka came to know well. His wish was to actually take part in at least one of the actual expeditions conducted by a fisherman named Jessie and his son, Toby, who owned large fishing boats. Both advised that the journey was rigorous and required several consecutive days on the water. Belka turned to T-Rod, a fisherman whose father built shrimp boats all of his life. He was also the subject of a Belka portrait bearing his name. Belka took a step closer to his goal when he was invited to be present on the shrimping boat during the Blessing of the Fleet, which traditionally opens the Delcambre Shrimp Festival. Though not successful in convincing any of the expert fisherman and shrimpers to allow him to participate in an actual fishing expedition, he plans to return when time allows him to go out for several days and perhaps weeks.
The time for such an adventure may not be easy to find. Belka has flourished in his own area of expertise, participating in Louisiana Contemporary presented by the Ogden Museum of Southern Art and the Bywater Biennial at the New Orleans Art Center. In December 2015, he received national recognition for The Altruist, winning the prestigious Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series. In addition to the honor, he was invited to present a solo exhibition of his paintings at SCOPE New York, an international contemporary art show, in March.