Q&A: William Betts
Untitled 11:34am, 2010 | Acrylic paint on reverse drilled mirror acrylic, 36 x 23.875 inches
The works of William Betts operate less like paintings and more like moments captured in time. Featured in editions #60, #72, and #84 of New American Paintings, Betts uses video stills and technological applications to inform his compositions, where some works are both a reproduction and an original, stretching the limits of the medium of painting to the very edge. We caught up with the Houston-based artist last week to talk about his work and his penchant for video. —Evan J. Garza
EJG: How long have you lived in Houston? How has Texas had an effect on your work?
I have lived in Houston since 1991. I moved here to take a job after graduating from college with a degree in studio art. Texas has had a profound effect on my art in the sense that there is a great optimism here that you just don't find in many parts of the country. I think that wide open 'can do' attitude can be very good for an artist but it can also be very daunting.
I-10 and Resler, El Paso, Texas, June 8, 2007, 7:00am, 2008 | Acrylic on Canvas, 54 x 72 inches
EJG: Your work in recent years has been largely voyeuristic, with painted scenes of freeway security camera stills and similar hotel room scenes. What is it about this type of video that interests you as an artist?
Gosh, thats a complicated multi-leveled question. There are several reasons why I like it. I got interested in it because the point of view has a fascinating conceptual basis in Bentham and Foucault, but more importantly to me as a painter I think it allows me to capture a distance in the work that I like. I like being removed from a situation, standing back observing. It feels comfortable to me as an individual while it also captures an alienation that exists in our society as a result of technology. It's a point of view very similar to what Hopper captured in his paintings that spoke to the alienation of the urban experience and yet its also extremely contemporary.
As a practical tool for a painter, I love video as a source material. Jasper Johns always spoke of the difference between looking and seeing and I think that its part of what interests me about this point of view. It looks but it doesn't really see. What I am interested in is those moments that you catch something more, something beyond what is there. I remember I did a painting of my sister a few years ago. I took a still from a video tape of her and I remember going over and over it looking at it and there was this one moment on the tape where she opened her mouth slightly and it was literally almost imperceptible but it was a gesture that defined her to me and so I started thinking about that idea and I started looking at video very closely - not as "video" but as a painter and it really stuck me how the slightest change in the image could be profound and it really has to do with looking versus seeing.
Amber, 03/19/04, 20:05:12, 2008 | Acrylic on Canvas, 30 x 40 inches
EJG: The medium of video clearly informs the composition of your scenes, down to the pixels and grainy texture of a monitor. Tell me about this.
It's how we see most images today — whether stationary or moving. They are presented to us on monitors, flat screens, and cell phones. It's a slick surface devoid of texture and almost hermetic. My interest in this has led me to create my latest series of paintings which I make by drilling tiny holes in the back of plexiglass mirrors and filling [them] with paint. The surface is slick and plastic and the paint is literally encased in the plexi below the surface. I wanted to keep pushing the idea of video influencing painting and this to me was the next logical step.
EJG: How do you work in the studio? Do you request video feeds from cameras? And how do you work with these?
It depends on what I am working on. I usually work on several series at once. For the TexDOT traffic camera series, I licensed the images from TexDOT and polled their sites to get all the images. So, much of my time was spent in the studio culling through thousands of images to find the ones I wanted. For my Beach and Pool series, when I am traveling, I take thousands of images and then look at them, sort them, examine them, group them, and then keep looking at them. Sometimes it's about looking around the images and finding something interesting off towards the edge in the background that captures my interest, a group of people that are interesting.
M-0403, 2007 | Acrylic on Composite, 45 x 45 inches
EJG: The first time I stepped foot in Holly Johnson's gallery in Dallas, she was featuring Array, a solo show of your paintings which (correct me if I'm wrong) were executed by machines, with compositions created by you. Tell me about this and the importance of technology in your work.
Array was a show of moire patterns. I got very interest in moire patterns after I inadvertently created one while I was making one of my line paintings several years ago. I got a few books on the subject and realized that there was a whole body of mathematical theory behind the patterns, and that in fact movie companies spend huge amounts of money trying to remove moire patterns when they transfer analog film to digital media (like DVDs). It was interesting to me that one of the primary commercial focus of this entire body of theory was to remove these things that I found so interesting and beautiful and that they came about as a result of the transition from analog to digital.
I have always used technology to create my paintings regardless of the series. One of the foundations of my work is my belief that technology has a place in painting and can be used to continue to push the boundaries. For myself, I use computer controlled machines to 'go' to specific locations and then at those specific locations I apply paint using processes or methods I develop specifically for that series of work. This gives me a very high resolution and really an extraordinary control over where and how much paint I apply so I can make paintings that simply could not be made ten years ago. With my Moire series, for example, to create the pattern, the distance between the lines of paint must be perfectly constant otherwise it simply doesn't work. With my process, I can apply paint with an accuracy of .002 of an inch so I have an extraordinary control over the painting process and I can achieve the results I want. Ironically, with the moire paintings, it is a serial process. Whereas with many of my paintings, I know exactly what the finished picture to look like before I start. With the moires, it's a serial process where one array of lines is applied, then the next, then the next. It's quite interesting because I have no idea how each layer is going to react with the previous, and sometimes I will apply a layer and it looks awful and then I put down the next and, all of a sudden, it's really beautiful.
Untitled 10:55am, 2010 | Acrylic paint on reverse drilled mirror acrylic, 23.75 x 35.75 inches
EJG: Have you ever worked in video? If not, do you have any interest in working in video?
No, I shoot a lot of video for my paintings, but I decided early on that I was a painter and I was going to stick to that. I think a lot of artists go into video because they feel constrained by the traditional mediums, and it frankly looks like more fun, but to me I am more compelled to constrain myself to the medium and push open the possibilities within that and, frankly, I think I am doing that.
William Betts was featured in editions #60, #72, and #84 of New American Paintings. He is currently featured in a solo exhibition of his work at Jennifer Kostuik Gallery in Vancouver, British Columbia and has a forthcoming solo show at Devin Borden Hiram Butler Gallery in Houston, TX. This December he will be featured at PULSE Miami with Margaret Thatcher Projects, New York, and at Art Miami with Richard Levy Gallery, Albuquerque, NM.