In 1996 Brian Belott—painter on plastic, designer of used sock reliquaries, creator of wildly eccentric books—made a small picture of a pirate ship. Clumps of collage and dark paint picked out a wonky blue hull amidst churning sea and sky; cartoon ghosts hovered above the rigging as a black cat arched its back before a full moon—it was a child’s boiled-down catalogue of scary. It was also one of the artist’s favorite works, kept on the wall of his studio for 15 years, until he was prevailed upon to loan it to an exhibition. Whence it was stolen.1
For years, all that remained of the beloved painting was a fuzzy photograph pinned where the original used to hang. It was still there this past year, as the artist was looking through drawings to be translated into a potential woodcut. (Belott had been smitten with Donald Baechler’s Tantric Feet [see Art in Print Jan–Feb 2016], which had been cut by Takuji Hamanaka, in the Japanese manner, from the artist’s drawing glued to the woodblock.) During that meeting, print publisher Mark Baron raised the possibility of using the pirate ship rather than an extant drawing as a starting point. On the face of it, this was a screwball suggestion: the painting was lost, the photo was lousy, and neither possessed the sharp graphic dynamism on which woodcut thrives. Naturally the project went ahead.
The snapshot was scanned in high-resolution black-and-white and printed at 16 x 20 inches. Using sumi ink and brushes on rice paper, Belott made a series of ink drawings from the scan. The best of these was brought to Hamanaka, who registered his trepidations—there would be no way, in the binary syntax of black-and-white woodcut, to preserve the brushstrokes’ tapers or the articulate variations of opacity. What a great block-cutter could do, however, was transform a murky cloud of forms into an intricate, high-stakes silhouette.
Pirate Ship (2017) is profoundly different from Spooky Night with Pirate Ship (1996), and from the intermediary photograph, scans and drawings. Lumpy dimensionality has become planar; chromatic nuance has been replaced with solid black or white; willful spontaneity has been recast as virtuosic replication. And yet the essential, chaotic density of the painting has been preserved. The mechanical heightening of arbitrary distinctions that occurred at each stage of translation increases the confusion, conflating some things and interrupting others. The mast and rigging disintegrate into a scrappy de Kooning-esque tangle; the ghosts’ white outlines now appear as empty space, while their see-through ectoplasmic innards go black. Like the found objects Belott has often sandwiched behind plastic, the pirate ship has been squished by its own preservation, transformed into something newer, flatter and infinitely weirder.
- “Brian Belott: Joy of File,” Zurcher Gallery, 26 February – 3 April 2010. There is still a reward; anyone with knowledge of the painting should contact the artist at firstname.lastname@example.org.