Susan Jane Belton’s coffee cups have been annoying me for years. These serial drawings and paintings first reminded me of Warhol soup cans or Jim Dine's drawings of utensils, except without the precision of Dine or the esoteric detachment of Warhol. Jane Belton’s subject is nothing if not pervasive. Coffee consumption in America is one of the largest and seemingly forever growing industries. Many, like Belton, drink coffee for a variety of purposes, including processing world events, socializing, comfort, etc. Belton does not seem to comment or critique the popularity of the coffee industry as much as she simply partakes in it more than the average coffee Joe.
Belton’s latest installment of disposable cups at Howard Yezerski Gallery show nothing particularly different from when I first saw the series 4 years ago. Painted from observation they have a kind of loving attentiveness to them, though an adept still life painter Belton is not. Her style does not have the banality that matches her subject, as Warhol’s cool silkscreens, nor does she have the painterly skill to bring the banality of coffee cups to surprising depth. Her style hovers between the look of a student learning how to paint and a painter who doesn’t know what else to paint.
In statements accompanying the work, Belton lists many of the activites she does, including contemplating the massive political events of our times and her feelings of being overwhelmed with such mind-boggling scenarios. Recoiling, she then declares the work is not about such large conundrums but what she does when thinking about them, which of course is drink coffee. In this sense, the work is about a deferral of social activism and responsibility that is based on the belief that one really can’t make a difference. If the work is about this passive and privelaged position most Americans enjoy (afterall, it is a luxury to drink coffee and contemplate third world poverty instead of experiencing it first hand) then the paintings do not embody this ideology in a powerful way.
What the work does seem to exemplify is an all-powerful shrug of the shoulders: “I can’t solve the world’s problems so I’ll just drink coffee and think about them.” While this may be a controlling ideology, the trick to make this work interesting would be to overwhelm the viewer with banality and deferral. Consider a channeled energy that is so obsessed with painting and drinking coffee that it totally replaces the energy spent on “solving world problems.” The viewer is then confronted with the same hopelessness I’m sure many feel, but it in a more emotional or visceral way.
As it stands, the work is simply banal, not a directed, channeled banality that comments on the position she comfortably occupies. The viewer is left with very mediocre paintings of coffee cups, that defer social action, but do it passively.
Howard Yezerski Gallery
"Susan Jane Belton: Coffee Break" is on view from November 18th- December 23rd, 2005 at the Howard Yezerski Gallery.
All images are courtesy of the artist and Howard Yezerski.