Aleksander Betko's solo show Through Your Eyes at Dacia Gallery showcases the development of this painter's exploration of New York City through figurative painting, portraiture and landscape.
He mainly paints anonymous scenesters, a little too old to be post-collegiate, a little too young to have reached the tops of their arcs. They occupy recognizable urban environments: the city's parks and streets, indifferent apartments warmed up with underfunded personal touches, graffiti'd backstage rooms.
Betko was born in Poland. Although he came to New York as a young child, he identifies himself, in artist's statements and conversation, as an immigrant. This fits, for me. His work partakes of something I think of as the immigrant's paradox. You can see the same paradox at work in writers from Vladimir Nabokov to Lee Child. Some of the most quintessential depictions of the American land and people arise from a particular eye: the eye of the outsider, who can see the boundaries of Americanness invisible to the native-born. Not just any such outsider, though, can generate the immigrant's paradox. Rather, it requires the outsider who, upon arriving here, is overwhelmed by a sense of homecoming. This outsider carries a contradiction throughout his residence in America, ranging in intensity over time from latent and forgotten, to urgent and tragic. The contradiction is between his sense of America as his true home, the home of his soul -- and his fear at losing America, that some unknowable invitation could be withdrawn and force him back to the nation he abandoned, which was never a home to him. This contradiction emerges in his work as the immigrant's paradox -- the work takes a fierce hometown pride in America, and at the same time, betrays at the edges a sense of detachment, of impending loss.
For Betko, the particular territory of hometown pride is New York '80s punk, the environment that unfolded wondrously before his eyes when he was a child. This environment defined his sense of the vivid, and in his work he seeks out its echos: the scenes where it took place, or spaces which recall its textures, or people who remember the period, or those who, too young to have been there, are living it again in their own historically ignorant ways.
This freight of memory and desire, of the interaction between the individual and the nation, of people trying to find their homes in a world of fleeting camaraderies and lasting lonelinesses, makes Betko's work very moving to me. Like his people, I don't think he is at the top of his arc yet. But he is still youngish, and there is still time, and the themes he has deep emotional access to -- to which he has opened himself -- are extraordinarily fertile.