heather betts

raison d'être
31 May - 25 June 2011

I am usually cautious about painting. The times I have written about it, I have been nervous—being schooled in post-conceptualism and a world of post-object art, I find painting enmeshed within the politics of the market and thus tainted with corporate values. Despite this psychopathology, I am sometimes in the presence of paintings that challenge my neurosis.

I have come to understand that the painting that actually talks to me is about painting. When it encompasses its medium it is compelling and sometimes confronting—at its best it has the capacity to speak in tongues, a kind of psycho-poetic babble that speaks to the condition of subjects in the world and their fraught attempts to stay afloat on the shipwreck of history—but few artists actually get there. Francis Bacon understands the troubles of the human psyche and Anselm Kiefer navigates the shipwreck of history with an eye to survival, but I think he is a better sculptor–installation artist than a painter.

Painter’s painters are scarce these days. Despite the rally of the trans avant-garde and Neo-expressionism, the painterly has been mostly out of fashion at the experimental end of the art world during the postmodern era. Painting is tough because it is bogged down by an art history that traditionally valued mimesis. Although modernist forms of abstraction tried to address this issue and get inside the medium of painting, the grandfathers of the New York School sold out to the Cold War and managed to create a political disaster for painting. There is still a lot of painting but it is a troubled medium which has lost its sense of belonging and certainly its privilege in the canon of contemporary experimental art. The interrogation of representation valued by postmodernism seems too difficult for painting—it either gets too close to photography as a way of engaging with critical debate or it embraces the appropriation of its own history as a way of acknowledging its failures, like a serpent eating its own tail.

Heather Betts is an Australian artist who moved to Berlin in 1984 and now spends her time between here and there. Betts says she has always appreciated Berlin because it is an edgy place, no one is quite comfortable there, it has a heavy history that cannot be ignored. In Australia during her formative years she was a musician who studied painting at the City Art Institute in Sydney. She played viola with the Australian Youth Orchestra and was set to have a promising career, but when she got to Germany she decided to concentrate on painting and enrolled in another undergraduate degree at the Berlin Art Academy specifically to understand painting so that she could push the medium to its limits. Since she graduated in 1989 she has been showing widely across Europe, North America and intermittently in Australia.

Betts’s figurative abstractions are built up on layers of colour but they often begin as small black and white sketches which are pared down to minimal lines and smudges. The paintings are developed in series, many of which have been inspired by operas or dramatic musical compositions, so there is a performative aspect to the paintings as the figures come to life through the narrative. Betts insists that there is a musicality inherent in colour and she successfully mines this for emotional affect. She positions herself firmly on the side of expressionism and says she is primarily interested in human experience. In the suites of paintings this experientialism is played out through historical narratives and personae, as well as the artist’s own experience.

‘Raison D’Être’ tells the story of the famous legal trial of Socrates in Athens in 399BC, a trial that tested the limits of the freedom of speech and still resonates in contemporary society. Socrates was sentenced to death in a would-be democratic society for teaching a younger generation how to question the authority of their fathers. He was also charged with ‘impious acts’, notably his refusal to recognise the correct gods, those authorised by the state.

Betts’s treatment of the trial presents a psychological interpretation where fragmented and contorted bodies play out a drama of betrayal. In Unanswered Questions the philosopher’s face appears swathed in black and surrounded by daubs of colour and red patches, the colour suggesting unrest and an impinging violence. During his trial Socrates asked numerous questions of his accusers, querying if they understood human and political virtue, among other things, and none came forward. To the left a lone figure is outlined in red and stands apart on a blue ground, perhaps representing the young Plato, one of those whom Socrates had supposedly led astray. Administer is, in many ways, the climax of the series as it shows the young Plato cradling the head of the old philosopher as the deathly hemlock potion is being administered. Red figures erupt out of the darkness, bloodied and already ephemeral, they are almost luminescent against the void of black as they seem to be pulled out of the vortex of history. A history bound to repeat itself over and over.

Administer, 2011. Mixed Media on canvas, 150 x 130cm. Images courtesy the artist and Lindberg Galleries, Melbourne.