Jo Bertini: Deep in Land

20 October - 12 November 2022

Exhibition Text

Creating art is arguably a form of magic. In the work of Jo Bertini, one can plainly see an alchemy and interplay of paint, surface, pigment, pressure, line, shape, contour, space, and light. Her decades of painting deserts, considered both a mystical and forbidding environment, are distilled in this newest body of work inspired by the high desert areas of northern New Mexico. To experience the works in ‘Deep in Land’ is to see this often misunderstood and overlooked landscape through the artist’s keen eye and to understand the fragile ecology of these environments and the importance of preserving them.


Jo Bertini worked for 10 years as the Expedition Artist with “Australian Desert Expeditions,” a group of “esteemed experts from a range of universities, museums, herbariums, and scientific institutions, across various academic and scientific disciplines, on ecological, archeological, and indigenous research into the most remote and inaccessible regions of the Australian deserts.” The artist’s deep immersion in the Australian landscape informed her fieldwork in the deserts of North Western India, North Africa, and most recently extensive field work in the Southwestern U.S.


In the western art historical canon, the landscape painting tradition and the open vistas of the American West have intersected since the 19th century. In the early 20th century, Georgia O’Keefe – one of New Mexico’s most famous longtime residents – distilled natural forms from the landscape surrounding her studio in Abiquiu. Bertini has a studio there and paints the same landscape today.


The Anthropocene is a theoretical geologic epoch that reimagines humanity as a dominant geophysical force, considering our current understanding of climate science. It is frequently referenced by artists, art historians, and arts writers seeking to address the climate crisis, thinking through how art can play a role in raising the alarm, and inspiring action in governments and peoples around the world.


Jo Bertini’s deep focus on deserts has naturally placed water, and the lack thereof, as a central theme of her work. Her transcendent painting, Breath of the Last Wild River, depicts the Gila River in New Mexico, the last undammed river in the state. As she shares “The majority of desert waterways are ephemeral and seasonal. Water levels across all rivers globally have dropped due to desertification, climate change and increasingly complex human impacts.”


Bertini takes a deeper dive into the global issue of desertification with Salt Creep Telling Stories, with a title that refers to the negative impact of increased salinity on biodiversity. Salt creep and desert expansion are issues that can be traced directly to human impact, with the primary factors being increased population, clear-cutting, and overgrazing of cattle. Painted in saturated hues of pink, this painting represents the artist’s take on the male-dominated tradition of landscape painting, and her response to it. As she shares:


Salinity and desertification acts for me as a metaphor for the imbalance in archived desert histories from a predominantly male perspective. Deserts are historically depicted as bleak, places of despair, barren unworthy, unimportant landscapes. Yet I have always found them to be places of bounty and benevolence. Their obvious cornucopia is so contrary to the way we have chosen to represent isolated arid interiors, (as historically painted by male explorers). What needs to be reclaimed is a fiercely female perspective, largely underrepresented and unexplored. I want to correct this imbalance and paint salt pink.


Jo Bertini’s paintings evoke the awe of the 19th century landscape tradition, layered with a 21st century contemporary approach that takes on the climate crisis and asserts a feminist view of it all. To experience a gallery space filled with her paintings is akin to looking into sublime portals that stir a call to action in the viewer. Bertini’s paintings connect to the contemporary environmental art movement, while firmly grounded in the tradition of painting and with a decidedly feminist perspective. Time spent with the art of Jo Bertini rewards the viewer, who is deeply engaged in the storytelling each painting offers, distilling decades of the artist’s slow-looking and deep knowledge of precious and precarious desert environments around the world.


Daisy McGowan
Director & Chief Curator, UCCS Galleries of Contemporary Art

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