Gray matter

“Pater Noxus” (“Bad Father”), by Betty Clark.

Ask any Asheville art aficionado to describe Betty Clark’s work, and a word that echoes the artist’s own lively name is often heard: “cheerful.” (“Colorful” and “decorative” are also commonly offered.)

But Clark’s current exhibit at Black Mountain Center for the Arts is decidedly darker. Gone are the sunny, clear yellows; gone too the “it’s just about the paint” modernist attitude.

Instead we get child abuse, Satan and environmental apocalypse.

Even the execution is different. Clark’s lyrical swaths of color are no more — the brushstrokes here are narrow, sharp and angry. The show comprises five large paintings, each one measuring 70-by-64 inches. With the exception of “Odontoglossum Hybrid,” all were completed this year.

“Odontoglossum” also differs from the others in being figurative. Depicting a gold-and-maroon flower with red drips running from colored spots on the petals, the work, subtitled “Orchid with Stigmata,” totters uncomfortably between representation and abstraction.

Three of the newer works also bear Latin names, but are quite different in style and content. “Pater Noxus,” or “Bad Father,” addresses the issue of parental abuse and neglect. Clark says she believes badly treated children separate from themselves and therefore from the earth. The painting’s background is a putrid, dead-flesh color; a large, limp scrotum enters the canvas from the right side. It is painted black, with harsh, stabbing brushstrokes, and the partially obscured word “Daddy” is printed in childlike red letters. A small, bloody, X-shaped red wound moves cautiously away from the menacing black image.

“Factum Obscurum,” Clark says, is a comment on the uncertainty of our sources of information, on the fact that we never know the truth about anything despite being constantly bombarded with “news.” The canvas’ right side is dissected by a linear black shape that branches and bulges at the top, while below that the gray ground is overlaid with a strangely disturbing shade of mustard.

Gray is again the prime color of “Terra Icterus II,” ecological disaster the painting’s subject. There is a patch of scrumbled rust near the top of the canvas, and a repeat of the roughly painted head-shaped oval found in “Factum Obscurum,” this time rendered in yellow topped with bright orange. Smatterings of red are buried beneath the gray, and a black-and-white ghost line lurks, creeping in and out of the left side of the piece.

Even so, the most disturbing of the paintings is “The Handless Maiden.” Based on the re-telling of an old fairy tale from the 1992 book Women Who Run With the Wolves, it is a convoluted story about a young woman whose father makes a deal with the devil. Done in dark grays, the vacant head shapes make another appearance, alongside bloody drippings that run from the scary, bloody nub of the maiden’s hand rising from the bottom of the work. Someone once remarked that all art is political. In the general case of the contemporary painter making non-objective work, this may or may not be true. In the case of Clark’s new work, that dispute has been violently laid to rest.

[Connie Bostic is an Asheville-based artist and writer. Her work is currently showing as part of Road in Sight: Contemporary Art in North Carolina at Duke University.]

paintings by Betty Clark shows at Black Mountain Center for the Arts (225 W. State St., in Black Mountain) through Saturday, May 28. 669-0930.

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