Though painter Aron Belka grew up about a half-hour away from Saratoga Race Course, it was at a racetrack 1,500 miles away that his artistic imagination found fertile ground, fertile enough to inspire a show dedicated to the people and animals of Thoroughbred racing,
Belka’s show “Call to Post,” which ran from Jan. 6 to Feb. 24 at Lemieux Galleries in New Orleans, featured both large- and small-scale paintings of people and horses both anonymous and well-known. Visitors to the gallery were greeted by a 35” x 35” painting of jockey Florent Geroux, sporting maroon and gold silks, goggles both dangling around his neck and obscuring his eyes. To the right is Robby Albarado in the recognizable silks of Lane’s End Farm. Most of the horses are anonymous, but one eight-year-old Louisiana-bred gelding, Lou’s Delta Blues, gets pride of name, perhaps on the strength of his 48-10-3-6 record, for earnings of $186,000.
Belka is known for his portraits—his last show was on the fishermen of Louisiana—and his focus on equine art stemmed from a desire to stretch his artistic wings by, perhaps paradoxically, returning to one of the first images he learned to draw: a horse.
“My dad was an architect and draftsman,” Belka explained, “and he taught me to draw horses when I was very young. I hadn’t done any work on horses since I was five years old, and I wanted to draw on that memory.”
The significance of the horse in art and history—the cave paintings of Lascaux are estimated to have been created 17,000 years ago—also intrigued Belka, and he knew he’d found his subject when the father of a friend of his bought two Thoroughbreds to race at Fair Ground Race Course in New Orleans, where Belka now lives.
Belka went to the races with his friend, and to the backstretch. Impressed by the history of the track—which dates to 1872, and racing in the area goes back to 1839—and its significance to the city (it hosts New Orleans’ annual Jazz Festival), by the magnificence of the horses (he called them “super-athletes”), and by the migrant work force, he knew he’d found the subject for his next show.
“To the Post” is Belka’s second solo show at Lemieux Galleries. Shortly after he moved to New Orleans, he became friendly with Jordan Blanton, who worked at the gallery at the time.
“She was frustrated that I wasn’t represented by anyone,” Belka said, “so she brought my work to Lemieux.”
“The first pieces we saw by Aron were portraiture,” said gallery co-owner and director Christy Wood. “I was taken by his ability to retain a lot of gesture, movement, and energy in his manipulation of the paint, and to create very realistic images.”
Wood admitted that she was a little skeptical when Belka told her that he wanted to paint horses, especially at the racetrack—until she saw the first painting.
“I was blown away,” she said. “Horses lend themselves very well to the way he paints: the detail, the movement, the musculature of the horses. The paintings are very striking.”
Equally striking are Belka’s portraits of the humans in the sport. One, of a hotwalker holding a horse at the corner of a shedrow, is a familiar sight to anyone who spent time on the backstretch. But there is nothing matter-of-fact or nondescript about her; she’s holding her horse, but her face tells a story of somewhere else. She’s looking off into the distance, her face both relaxed and pensive.
The show was well-received, and Belka said that he sold nine of the 19 paintings in the show. Though the Lemieux Galleries show is closed, the remaining paintings are available on Belka’s website, and there’s a possibility that they might be displayed at Fair Grounds this season. Belka also said that he’s gotten a number of phone calls from Thoroughbred owners interested in commissioning portraits of their horses. He has upcoming solo show at the Marietta/Cobb Museum of Art in Atlanta, and his work is also on display at Quidley and Company in Naples, Florida.
He has no immediate plans to continue painting horses or racetrack scenes, but according to Wood, he’s already brought that world to a larger audience.
“People loved the show,” she said. “Even people who aren’t horse fanatics were in awe of the work.”