ASPEN - "I'm a contrast junkie," says Joel Belmont. For the moment, Belmont was speaking about the contrast between his photographs and those of Pola Oginski, which hang on adjacent walls at the Aspen Chapel Gallery, part of the group exhibition Bold Perspectives. The gulf between Oginski's photograph - straightforward, benign, referencing nothing outside the frame - and Belmont's work is wide.
Belmont's observation was not intended as deep self-assessment. But contrasts do seem to play a strong role in the 32-year-old Glenwood Springs resident. There is, on the one hand, his day job, as owner-operator of Belmont Cleaning, a carpet business that employs the cleaning technique invented by his father, and on the other his creative life, making provocative, visually compelling photographs. His black-and-white images are extremely black-and-white, emphasizing contrasting color tones. "So it's not a dark, muddled space," he said. "It's a clear presentation of what I'm trying to achieve."
The handful of Belmont's pieces in the Bold Perspectives exhibition are serious stuff, meant to challenge viewers. By contrast, Belmont's work at the Roaring Fork Open, which opens this week at the Aspen Art Museum, shows a rarer flash of his humorous side. "Plastic Angst" shows a Godzilla figure angered by the breast implants of a reclining naked woman.
"I'm serious with my work," Belmont said. "And sometimes I have to get people to take life less seriously."
The starkest contrast in Belmont's work, however, is in the tight juxtaposition of the material with the spiritual. All of his photographs in Bold Perspectives feature the nude female figure, with robust feminine flesh often as the prominent element in the work. Meanwhile, Belmont is a member of the First Church of Christ, Scientist, a faith that asserts the spiritual nature of all things and the insignificance of the material. Belmont and his wife, a German-born oil painter named Lili, are part of the rotation of readers who lead services at Glenwood's Christian Science Church.
"Pretty much all my work, to some degree, contrasts the material/human element with the spiritual ideal," Belmont said. "To me, that gets to the core of what life's about."
At times, Belmont forces that issue on the viewer. The photograph "What Do You See?" offers a direct challenge: Can you look at a shapely, undressed female form and see past the corporeal to the person's less obvious but more enduring attributes? The piece features said body, and instead of clothing there is Belmont's writing: "For what is skin deep is fool's gold/ It's what's beneath that speaks all beauty and truth ..."
So if Belmont wants to emphasize the spiritual and eternal, wouldn't the image of a saggy, ancient body do it just as well? Or better? Belmont says that wouldn't be much of a challenge for the viewer.
"It's not like I'm using an old wrinkled lady and saying, 'Can you see more?' Of course you can," he said. "It's, 'Here is what you would find as your ideal of the physical. Can you see more than just eye candy?'"
Belmont, who had a concentration in photography during his years at the Christian Science-affiliated Principia College, in Elsah, Ill., says that in his overall body of work, there are models old and young, firm and fat. But in the small sampling at the Aspen Chapel, the figures lean strongly toward the attractive and young. Belmont says the work is not meant to deny the physical realm; beauty, he says, plays a role in human life.
"We have to attract a mate; we have to put on a show. It's like a bird with plumage. There's an obvious animal attraction among all people; without that, there wouldn't be a perpetuation of the human race," he said. "At the same time, do we stop at seeing the body as an object of desire? Or do we see more about what makes people unique, with lasting spiritual qualities? Physical beauty is such a transient thing."
He mentions that he has worked with models weighing 300 pounds: "I try to find beauty in all of it."
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"What Do You See," the image of the naked figure with Belmont's writing, is the artist at his extreme, sticking the material/sacred dichotomy in viewers' faces. In other photographs, the ideas are more subtle, and the range of approaches makes the work as a whole more deeply thought-provoking and visually satisfying. Technically proficient, and using large-format film, Belmont employs narrative and composition to make his points.
"We Are Held" features a blindfolded, topless woman holding an infant up to a window. The right half of the frame, by the window, is saturated with light; the other half is dark, though not dark enough to hide the presence of broken glass and an overall atmosphere of degradation.
"You've got the material side, this darker, broken aspect of life, a not-lasting, temporal sense. Contrasting with a very light, radiant side of life," Belmont said. "I see that baby being every person at some point, and how we are held by something outside of ourselves, toward the light, even though we seem to be surrounded by more material things."
"Progress" shows one woman dragging another by her feet up an incline. "It's about how other people help us along in life, even if we don't want to be helped," Belmont said.
The technique in "Progress" is masterful, employing not only dark and light but visual perspectives, horizon lines and points that are in and out of focus. Belmont's method involves sketching out his visual ideas in a journal beforehand, which allows him time to contemplate what he wants the image to say, and how to say it.
"Everything I do is to distill down to an idea," said Belmont, who grew up in California and Oregon before moving as a teenager to the Roaring Fork Valley, with his brother, James, and their mother, Jennifer, who died last year. "I don't photograph things - people already know what things look like. So everything I am doing - taking color out of it, finding one focal point to distill the image down to one place - is about conveying the ideas I'm working with."
Among those ideas is the universality of the human spirit. Hence, the hidden or cropped-out faces and the use of blindfolds.
"Photography is such an honest medium, if you include personality, it's hard to get past it," said Belmont, who also makes collaborative oilgraphs, with his wife painting over his photos. "The more you are chronicling personalities, the more you're saying, This is what a person looked like at this time," Belmont said. "I try to take personality out of it, so more people can relate to it. I want it to represent a generic sense of man. Or woman. Michaelangelo's 'David' - I don't think that's perceived as a specific person at a specific time. It's a generic sense of man."
Part of the reason he prefers the naked figure is to further remove personality from the art. "If you used clothed people, it just becomes about trend and social class," Belmont said. "For me, this is a way of taking class out of it, and distilling it down to ideas."
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Belmont doesn't worry that his work will be perceived as sexually oriented, or that it will be seen as anti-Christian. "The ideas I'm working with are very parallel to my belief system," he said.
To add context to the photographs, there is the work of fellow photographer Ken Bartle, exhibited on the Aspen Chapel wall opposite Belmont's. Bartle's are erotic works, putting the female form on a pedestal (and using the background of nature). Belmont expresses nothing against the erotic art - in fact, he curated the show, the first in the history of the Aspen Chapel Gallery to feature nudes - but says that his photographs lack much sexual content.
"A lot of advertising in the media is more sexually geared, even when it uses clothing," he said. "I'd say [my work] is more a celebration of spirit, a celebration of that which is beyond the five senses. Material beauty is a very transient thing. It lasts 100 years at best. I try to get people to take stock in qualities that might last longer."
Among those convinced that he is aiming for the sacred is his wife. "She keeps me on my toes with what I'm doing," Belmont said. "She's an artist. Not every wife would say, 'Yeah, go photograph naked women.' But she's an artist. She sees the higher purpose in this."
Lili's tolerance is sure to be tested with his next project. Belmont is working on his first book, "The Labia Project," featuring images of female genitalia. Again, there is a noble purpose, and here it's more specific than his usual work. The book, which includes text, is made to support the effort to eradicate the practice of female genital mutilation. Still the book, due out next spring, pushes "to the nth degree for her patience as a wife," Belmont said.
Belmont doesn't expect to follow with a series of photographs of naked men. Despite his belief in the universality of the human spirit, the male figure just doesn't do it for him as an artist.
"For me, the female form is more of a blank canvas. It doesn't scream any one thing," he said. "The male form is blocky, and doesn't seem to lend itself to anything other than strength and masculinity."