Pushing the Limits: In Discussion with Julia Betts

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Julia Betts, 2015-2017. Personal belongings embedded in plaster. Courtesy of the artist.

Questions by Adi Berardini

Artist Julia Betts channels art as a means of self-destruction—her work Detritus consists of self-portraits that are destroyed by shredding them back to earth, with the dust of the remains left in shades of rose pink, crimson, grey and russet. Betts brings art into the realm of imposing bodily limits through intervention. Veering towards the intersection of sculpture, performance, and installation, her work is defined by intentional unpredictability, the use of unstable materials and orchestration of situations in which her body and constructed space are subjected to forces of disorder.

Betts pushes a range of materials to the limits of their utility while placing herself in precarious circumstances that function as metaphors of emotional and psychic vulnerability and demonstrations of intentional disarray. Interested in the impossible, Betts creates uniquely precarious situations with ambiguous results that often lead to disruption and upheaval. She challenges the limits of representation by reflecting how life and art are hardly static but constantly transforming.

Can you explain more about how your work is influenced by emotional/psychological vulnerability and making a mess, but a highly deliberate mess?

I see messes as related to emotional and psychological vulnerability—they have to do with the need to control, the inability to control, and the subsequent loss of control. You can either lament the failure to control or revel in the messiness as a release from confinement. In this way, messes can embody dread or catharsis, reflecting an inability to keep accidents from happening and a yearning for release. Through viewing a mess, the image of the cultivated performer breaks down, revealing the human imperfection within the artist’s process. The viewer may perceive the spillage as the artist’s mistake and [therefore presume] that they have become privy to the artist’s unintentional expression. A mess becomes a radical expression of an imperfect image of oneself in a society that cultivates perfection. For me, messes also have a certain symbolic resonance relating to notions of femininity. Messes enact all things dirty, grimy, gory, visceral, and sensual in human experience, possibly even extending into the realm of the grotesque and traumatic when the dissolution speaks to bodily breakdowns.

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Julia Betts, Body as Pool. Still of performance while pouring paints. Courtesy of the artist.

Your practice seems to involve a mix of performance and traditional fine art (painting/ sculpture/installation), notably in Body as Pool where you create a self-portrait from outlining clay and pour liquidized paint through performance. Can you explain this piece further?

In this piece, I built a self-portrait by making an outline of a body with clay and I poured liquidized paint into the clay outline. The body’s color is made of acrylic paint and water. The area around the body is made of oil paint and vegetable oil, two substances [that] don’t mix. I rip into the clay walls and pour cups of paint into the image. The colors burst, erupt, flow, and penetrate through the body image both by my intentional action and by random circumstance. These intrusions into the body are meant to elicit a pain sensation. I imagine the clay as dams holding waters. I break the dams and let the waters out and the dams also just randomly burst.

Oil and water and their inability to mix relate to my interest in the impossible. The clay dams find the liquids impossible to hold. The oil and water find it impossible to merge. Because of these material properties, separation seems both fragile and unbreakable at the same time. I’m trying to depict unstable and ruptured bodily borders.

For me, there is a connection between material impermanence and the vulnerability of human life.

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Julia Betts, 2015-2017 (white). Personal belongings embedded in plaster. Courtesy of the artist.

Your piece 2015-2017 poetically captures a sense of material impermanence. The work uses your personal belongings mixed with plaster to capture how the materials become altered over time. Can you explain this piece further and how you address transition and unpredictability in your work?

In 2015-2017, belongings accumulated over two years are sorted by color (white, blue, orange, brown, black, red) and frozen in plaster time capsules. As part of the installation, labels situated nearby catalog the ephemera within each brick and describe moments when each object in each block changed colors. For example, a piece of a book with black text fades completely to white from repeated trampling, or a clear piece of hot glue accidentally sits on a window sill for months and when found, has yellowed. Permanence is contrasted with transience, transformation, and entropy. Seemingly insignificant moments and “trash” are elevated into vehicles to hold personal interactions, memories, and the residue of life.

For me, there is a connection between material impermanence and the vulnerability of human life. In my overall practice, I use materials that evoke transience and timelessness. With this piece, I attempt to control what is temporary and fragile, with what is solid and enduring, but, ultimately, the garbage within the plaster erupts with rot. Organic intervention interrupts my attempt to control and stasis.

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Julia Betts. Window Screens, 2016. Ink, steel, window screens. Courtesy of the artist.

In Window Screens, you explain how you created a steel box around yourself in a corner, filled the box with black ink and continuously dipped the sheets in the ink at maximum capacity. It seems to be an impossible task since the screens only hold the ink for a few seconds. Can you explain more about the inspiration behind this piece?

In Window Screens, the clear screen is unable to hold the black ink. Each time the ink drains from the screen, opacity and concealment relent to transparency and exposure. The untenability of the process is furthered when the box springs a leak and begins to empty the contents. The more ink I lost, the more I was unable to perform my process. It became harder and harder to make the screens turn black. I found myself scrubbing the floor with screens attempting to pick up any drop I could find of leftover ink. Eventually, I was completely unable to darken the windows and the performance ended. Even before I began this performance, I knew the possibility that the box might not be able to hold the ink. I intentionally created a precarious situation through lining the box with a tarp that may or may not be up to the task. I’m interested in placing myself in uncontrollable, vulnerable situations where accidents and disasters may happen. In this piece and my overall body of work, I am trying to create helplessness.

Julia Betts. Detritus, 2015. Ground self-images. Courtesy of the artist.

It seems as if the self-portrait is a common theme in your work, also appearing in the piece Detritus that shreds multiple self-portraits, displaying them as powdered remains. Can you explain your interest in the anxiety of self-representation (or the representation of self-destruction?)

I’m less interested in the anxiety of self-representation and more interested in the representation of self-destruction. This piece also has to do with my long-term interest in skin. Skin is both boundary and connection between self and other. There is a need for there to be a skin to bear, protect, carry, and represent. In Detritus, I grind images of myself with a household grater, shredded self-images of the body accumulate into layers of dust—with the colors incidental to the photographs used as source material. Photographs are a surrogate for skin. I had been doing work before this that depicted the boundaries of the body being torn, but I fully brought the body to the earth in this piece. Whereas, in Body as Pool, I imagine the body at the edge of the sea.

Your work seems to deal with imposed limitation, and at times, distress. Can you explain more about this interest and what it represents to you?

I’m interested in limits and possibilities. Either can cause distress or comfort.

I use the limitations of my body, time, space, and mark. Confinement can be a metaphor for social or psychological confinement. Within the limits, I am too much or too little. I react with helplessness and determination.

I portray vulnerability in my work in different forms. Materially, I try to create space for material agency to intervene in my authorship. Physically, my work shows the frailty of my body when it is unable to complete its tasks. Emotionally, my work exposes and reveals me in pieces like 2015-2017 where the viewer is allowed to sift through my trash. Situationally, there is vulnerability when I put myself in scenarios that I am unsure of the outcome, and, often, I share this uncertainty publicly through performance.

Check out more of Julia’s work at her upcoming show at Grid Space NYC in December 2019 and on her website and social media.

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