Anna Betbeze’s Venus at Atlanta Contemporary reviewed in ArtsATL

October 30th, 2017

Logan Lockner

Over four decades ago, Atlanta Contemporary originally opened as the home of the artists’ cooperative Nexus, generating much of the foundational lore of the city’s contemporary art scene. That story is so widely known that it hardly needs to be recounted again here. What is more open for debate, however, is how the museum’s relationship to that scene has evolved as Atlanta Contemporary’s visibility has increased across the South and the country. Particularly, does the institution have a responsibility to show work by Atlanta- or Georgia-based artists?

Each of the museum’s two current headline exhibitions — Anna Betbeze’s Venus and Matthew Angelo Harrison’s Dark Povera Part 1, both on view through December 17 — engage that complicated relationship in indirect but interesting ways: Betbeze is a Georgia native who continues to make work here despite now living in New York, and Detroit artist Harrison’s show draws much of its source material from Atlanta-based collections of African art.

Betbeze holds an MFA from Yale, has shown at New York galleries including Kate Werble and Thierry Goldberg and was a 2013 recipient of the Rome Prize. But before garnering any of those accolades, she grew up in Columbus, Georgia, and attended UGA’s Lamar Dodd School of Art. Though she mostly resides in New York, Betbeze repeatedly returns to Georgia to work, and Venus includes pieces created in both locations. The exhibition’s title conjures both mythological and astronomical associations, and the primary medium of the work on view — the wool of the shag rugs Betbeze has distressed and distorted — makes it difficult to resist considering a further literary one, the 1870 novella Venus in Furs by the Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, from whose name the term “masochism” is derived.

To create the three large-scale woolen wall hangings in Venus, Betbeze unleashes a barrage of techniques on traditional Greek carpets called flokati rugs: cutting and sewing, burning and singeing, dying with acid-bright colors. (When she began working with flokati rugs nearly a decade ago, Betbeze says she spent hundreds of dollars on dyes from Manic Panic, the legendary punk boutique on St. Mark’s Place.) In keeping with the masochistic tendencies outlined in Venus in Furs, the playful violence wrought upon Betbeze’s carpets transcends destructiveness and opens up new worlds of lush, sensual pleasure.

For the two smaller wall hangings, Venus and Pink Sun, Betbeze layers torn and matted carpets whose edges have been singed, turning the off-white wool varying shades of golden brown and black. Each of these pieces contains a single shock of vivid color: a darkly verdant corner on the lower left side of Venus, and a layer of rich magenta across the lower portion of Pink Sun. With their overlapping sections enclosing irregular gashes and holes, these two fragmentary tapestries almost resemble a collection of otherworldly animal pelts. The third textile sculpture, Opus (In the Flamboyant Grass), is the product of similar methods but, as its title suggests, takes on a much grander scale.

Cascading down the wall, over a raised platform and across the gallery floor, Opus interrupts the space with such a lavish presence that the other wall hangings seem restrained by comparison. Though it also sports burn-marks and blemishes, the composition of Opus assumes a sort of organic geometry, with portions of dyed fabric cut into rectangular and square shapes whose colors bleed into each other. Instead of isolating bursts of color, in Opus Betbeze unfurls a ravishing panoply of hues ranging from deep purples and greens to faint pinks and yellows. Whereas Venus and Pink Sunoffer a vague sense of their components’ beginnings as animal products, Opus feels like a living thing itself, neither animal nor human but somehow universal. Depending on how near or far you are from its surfaces, Opus appears to contain distant swirling galaxies yet also stands in for the natural world that encompasses all earthly life.

Delicately but forcefully deployed by Betbeze, this vacillating sense of scale is one of the exhibition’s most gratifying gifts to viewers. The enormity of Opus in particular, which suggests the influence of enveloping installations by American textile artist Sheila Hicks, serves as a reminder of the smallness of human life but also offers its own small revelations through particular textures and tactile delights. The place for human activity amidst these swirls of cosmic color is further complicated by Hunters, which comprises a clothing rack hung with mysterious garments such as dyed robes, swatches of fur and other fabrics. Though nearby wall text prohibits touching or wearing these items, the sensation of doing so creeps across the viewer’s shoulders and down her back. Perhaps Opus is similarly a cape for a goddess, or else leaves of grass, or the fabric of the universe.   

If Betbeze’s personal history and practice raise questions about how location and identity affect creative production, Matthew Angelo Harrison’s work confronts those questions head-on. Like the members of the arte povera movement obliquely referenced in the title of his exhibition, Dark Povera Part 1, Harrison strives to break down conventions around what distinguishes art objects from the seemingly ephemeral, but with a 21st-century twist. Instead of working with rags and twigs like his Italian predecessors, Harrison uses custom 3D printing technology to create altered copies of African artifacts such as masks and statues.

To read the review in ArtATL, CLICK HERE.