Reinterpreting the New World
Artist Monique Janssen-Belitz brings her unique vision of the American Southwest to upcoming show
Born in the Netherlands and raised in Germany, visual artist Monique Janssen-Belitz brings a unique perspective to bear upon her life in New Mexico. Similar to the way German film directors Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders have produced thought-provoking works of art using their European eye to interpret the American cultural and physical landscape—in the films Stroszek and Paris, Texas, respectively—Janssen-Belitz’s own provocative pieces are the result of her particular way of seeing.
Janssen-Belitz’s artwork will join that of fellow visual artists, Ohio graphic designer Charmaine Banach and Bay Area painter/wood sculptor Jeffrey Sully, at the upcoming, invitational Summer Stock exhibition at 1078 Gallery, which opens July 21.
“I am in the boondocks,” offered a clearly pleased Janssen-Belitz recently, in her German-tinged accent. “I am truly out of any kind of town.” She was speaking by phone during a three-week artist residency at the experimental-building compound of Lithuanian environmental artist Aleksandra Kasuba, in the New Mexican desert outside of the little town of Estancia.
Janssen-Belitz makes her official home in Albuquerque, where she is finishing up a master’s degree in art history at the University of New Mexico to add to a master’s in drawing and painting she earned there in 2010.
“I use my imagination a lot,” she said, while talking about the genesis of her panoramic 36-by-180-inch mixed-media-on-paper piece titled “Land’s Lament,” which features a hilly Southwestern landscape punctuated by dark, ambiguous, mound-like objects.
“I could just see how the buffalo ran wild here—I see [this scene] as if it’s still visible, embedded in the surface of the landscape,” she continued. “The trees [in the piece] you could interpret as trees—or as buffalo. It’s called ‘Land’s Lament’ because the buffalo are not anymore.”
The piece, she explained, functions as a kind of critique of what happened in the area in the late 1800s when the railroads were extending westward and “the white government was encouraging people to shoot buffalo for sport and let them rot, in order to force the Indians onto the reservation.”
Janssen-Belitz speaks passionately when it comes to Native American history, referring to those responsible for creating history textbooks that have the Mayflower as the starting point for American history as “arrogant.”
As far back as 750 A.D., the first Native American pueblo settlements were founded in New Mexico, she pointed out, and from 900 until the early 13th century, there was a thriving Anasazi civilization in what is now known as Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
“I can see parallels to the long timeline that I am used to in Europe,” said Janssen-Belitz. “That’s why I moved to New Mexico. I wanted to go to the desert; I wanted to experience real diversity. And I wanted to feel this timeline that goes back in time and space.
“In Chaco, I can feel that deep connection to the earth, and something spiritual. It’s a sacred place, and it’s been like that for centuries.”
Janssen-Belitz takes this deeply felt connection to the land and its original people and turns it into art—after her impressions have had time to simmer inside her and boil down to their essence.
“I never paint on the spot anymore,” she said. “I soak up the land. I memorize it. And then I go back [home] and, of course, I don’t remember all the details. It becomes abstract, loses all its literalness—which wouldn’t happen if I made a sketch—and it becomes the essence of the place.”
“Thought Lines”—at 8-by-90 feet, Janssen-Belitz’s largest piece—exemplifies her approach. She explains the thin dotted lines of red paint traversing the impressive landscape depiction as “remnants of Native American prayer that are still hanging over the landscape, kind of like prayer flags.”