Anna Betbeze: The Filth and the Fury

For Georges Bataille, the term informe designated matter that "has no rights in any sense and gets itself squashed everywhere": the crushed spider, the blob of spit, the big toe. We should, he said, undo the myths that insist on a hierarchy of form and praise the low and debased. Since Bataille celebrated the arbitrary in 1929, many artists have done their best to topple a slew of cherished notions — for instance, that for a painting to be a painting it must actually contain... paint. To the antiform lineage that includes Alberto Burri’s burlap sacks and Lynda Benglis’s poured-latex forms we may now add Anna Betbeze’s highly distressed flokati rugs. Using these shaggy hand-woven expanses in place of canvas, the artist subjects them to a variety of actions — dyeing, cutting, scorching, washing, shaving, and tearing — to achieve radical relieflike paintings that traverse the expanded field with abandon.

Betbeze’s work was a perfect fit for "Unpainted Paintings," a group show this spring at Luxembourg & Dayan gallery, in New York, that traced alternative approaches to the medium. The roster of artists in that show, which included Sheila Hicks, Piero Manzoni, and Robert Rauschenberg, "could not have read more like my list of biggest influences," says the 30-year-old artist, who admits that from her oeuvre "it looks like I’d be an Ab-Ex fan. But I’m not. The most influential work for me has been Minimalist sculpture. Robert Morris’s felt pieces are among my favorite things." Like Morris’s dense piles and hanging sculptures, Betbeze’s wool rugs have a palpable weight and an almost bodily presence. Yet she is unequivocal about their status as paintings. "Being on the wall, dealing with color and surface, tactility — everything relates back to painting."

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Betbeze is explaining all of this in her downtown Manhattan studio, which she considers more of an office and which is near her East Village apartment. She keeps a larger work space two hours away in New Haven, on the grounds of Yale, where she teaches in the art department and from which she graduated with an MFA in 2006. Out there she does "the dirty work" — hosing onto the rugs the acid-based textile dyes and watercolor pigment she uses, for instance. "I need sinks and ventilation," she explains but adds, "I work where I can. You have to be flexible in New York. Sometimes I go upstate, or I visit my family in Columbus, Georgia, where I’m from, so I can work outside." It was in Georgia that she completed about half the pieces in "Moss Garden," her show at the Kate Werble Gallery last February that was also her New York solo debut. For one of these, "Hoarfrost," 2011, she shoveled hot coals from a bonfire onto the surface of a flokati and let them smolder, burning through in some places and creating a honeycomb pattern of brown scorch marks elsewhere.

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Sometimes one process begets another. Instead of washing the rugs to stop the action of the dye, typically the last step before showing the paintings, she’ll leave the pigment on so that the chemicals eat into the wool fibers, allowing dry rot to set in. Once the surface is rotted, she can pull and tear at the surface with her hands. "All the marks are very direct, even if they’re derived from an organic process," she says. "In that way they’re performative." She will alter a single piece repeatedly, keeping it around her studio for years or leaving it for months at a time outdoors, in her parents’ backyard or on her studio’s roof, where the elements can add to the distressed effects that she’s after — the more distressed the better. "I like that the process is really coded and buried," she says. "I can’t even tell you how they’re made."

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Although the exclusive use of the flokati can seem formulaic or limiting, she says that "I’ve found that it’s not. I’m constantly finding new things in it. I’m interested in taking this process as far as I can" before moving on to something else. (Previously she used fabric, leather, and plywood.) "Materiality has a lot of potential for radical moves," she says. Ideas for the future: the application of intense pressure to the rugs, by driving over them with a steamroller, perhaps. She’s also thinking about creating architectural environments that would exploit their scale and intensify their relationship to the viewer’s body.

Betbeze came to her signature material more or less by chance while she was at Yale. "I lived with one of the rugs, and it became a filthy mess," she says, "and I started really enjoying it" and thought to try painting on it. Her practice has a physical intensity that goes beyond the application of paint: "Crawling around on them, being enveloped by them in the making" is to be immersed in them entirely. "A lot of times the process is out my control." She credits Yale professor Mel Bochner for helping her "find a language" for her work. "He also told me, ‘You work best when you’re angry.’" Fortunately, the flokati are tough enough to withstand her fury.

"The Filth and the Fury" originally appeared in the Summer 2011 issue of Modern Painters. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Modern Painters' Summer 2011 Table of Contents.