Ron Bechet and Hannah Chalew: You Can’t Hide the Sun at Other Plans, New Orleans

By May 31, 2024
Installation view of Ron Bechet and Hannah Chalew: You Can’t Hide the Sun. Courtesy of the artists and Other Plans, New Orleans. 

Landscape paintings, like maps, have historically been used to assert human dominance and ownership over a place. But something else is happening in Ron Bechet and Hannah Chalew’s “landscapes” in the exhibition, You Can’t Hide the Sun, on view now at Other Plans in New Orleans. Bechet depicts large and layered scenes of surrealist tree roots, trunks, and branches in charcoal on paper via rigorous mark making. Chalew creates her own media from fossil fuel pollution, plastic waste, sugarcane, living plants, and littered detritus. From this material concoction, she draws and sculpts patches of vegetation atop rusted pipes and candy-colored plastic bundles. Both artists push inherited boundaries of traditional landscape painting with exciting, new explorations and expansions in media—Chalew with the reuse of pollution materials and Bechet through his depiction of thriving trees with charcoal, itself burnt and dead wood.  

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Bechet creates striking contrasts between black and white hues, his broken perspective engulfing the viewer in the scene and eliminating any sense of a horizon line. The various directions of these marks mean different things to Bechet. Generally, he sees horizontal lines as references to death, vertical lines as indicating life, and diagonal marks as an indefinite in between. Like his unwieldy perspective, light sources and shadows also play against visual logics and expectations. Where is the sun? Where is the ground? Viewers are left to find our footing amid the roots and gnarls.

The exhibition displays a wide breadth of scale in the artists’ practices, with small works by Bechet measuring 12 x 14 inches while his larger drawings consume whole walls (and maybe their viewers too). “When I was a student,” he laughs, “the saying went, if you can’t make it good, make it big.” Bechet wisely leaves this advice in his past. His five small pieces on view are not studies, but rather highly finished windows into Bechet’s larger worlds. These works were made outside, en plein air, from life, while Bechet drew the larger pieces from memory and perhaps, premonition. Speaking of these more expansive drawings, Bechet explains, “I have to use my whole arm, my whole body. It’s all about mark-making.” In these scenes, like living boneyards of bark and bramble, you can read the muscle, the heavy friction of the mark. These pieces are worked. They are finished. They are ecosystems unto themselves.  

Installation view of Ron Bechet and Hannah Chalew, You Can’t Hide the Sun. Courtesy of the artists and Other Plans, New Orleans. 

In Chalew’s largest piece in the show, Bottomland Chimera, plants grow on a precarious structure of piping and bundles of plastic trash. This scaffolding system is designed so that when plants at the top of the piece are watered, excess runoff flows to lower levels of vegetation. Nearby, her drawings depict bushy, prickly flora growing from derelict pipes, scenes created with materials collected from around her New Orleans studio as well as an area referred to as “Cancer Alley.” Cancer Alley is an eighty-five mile stretch of the Mississippi River that hosts around 200 fossil fuel and petrochemical facilities, with understandably devastating environmental effect. Referencing the “the animacy of the materials,” Chalew sources dubious substances out of this landscape, bringing this material into her studio and subsequently the gallery space. “I’m really trying to get the concept and the materials to be one and the same,” shares Chalew in a beautiful interview with Denise Frazier organized by Other Plans on the occasion of this exhibition. 

During an artist talk at Other Plans, Chalew spoke calmly about a future without humans as she breastfed her infant baby, a new Louisiana inhabitant who will witness ever more devastating ecological consequences and fallout. The artist’s smallest piece in the show, Mud Returns, hangs above the gallery’s entrance door like a talisman or a blessing. 

You Can’t Hide the Sun presents a darkly optimistic depiction of a burgeoning earth in a state of renewal and recovery after the devastation of human exploitation and destruction. Long after humans have wrought their own extermination, plants will survive, replenishing and rejuvenating the environment for an Eden humanity didn’t earn. Instead of lamenting what feels like an inevitable and karmic human extinction, I find myself rooting for life that roots, rooting for the flourishing of palms, ferns, and brambles atop our mess of trash. I hope future trees grow renegade and swirling with the toxic fertilizer we leave behind. And I hope it all grows back burlier, more robust, and happier with its reduced company on this rock. To paraphrase Donna Haraway, we (humans) are merely the compost. With the exhibition, You Can’t Hide The Sun, Bechet and Chalew depict what may thrive from our own demise.  


Ron Bechet and Hannah Chalew,You Can’t Hide the Sun is on view at Other Plans in New Orleans through June 9, 2024.

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