Betty Tompkins: A Chromatic Loss

January 28, 2014 • Culture

Betty Tompkins

Ellensburg, WA 1973

I met Betty Tompkins over two years ago, while visiting her studio. Her personality and diligence with the art market stuck with me. She is a maverick in her subject matter and is as fearless as they come.

Fast forward two years later, I noticed she was a participant in a group show at Bortolami in Chelsea and was lucky enough to catch up with her. A Chromatic Loss is on view until February 15, 2014.


First off, where did you grow up?

I grew up in Philly. My family moved there from DC when I was about 3.

You are a patient person, you have been through many bouts of censorship and you are a maverick in your subject matter. Is there a monumental moment that you experienced where you feel that you, for lack of a better word, won the censorship battle? 

I don’t think it is the kind of battle you can win. I do the Censored Grids as a direct response to the experiences I have had of being censored. It was (and is) a way to keep sane through it. It is a stunning experience. It doesn’t bother me so much when it is corporate (Apple refused to make an album for my show at Lawrimore Projects in Seattle in 2008 which was to be the catalogue. Fortunately, Kinko’s had no such scruples and did it) but censorship by governments really gets to me.


Censored Grid #14, 2008

What is your intended goal for the viewer? Does shock play a role?

I don’t have an intended goal for the viewer because I don’t think about the viewer when I am working or planning work. I don’t answer questions about what my work “means” in order to leave the way clear for the viewer to have a pure reaction. Anything I say would only limit this. A viewer would then be looking through my eyes instead of their own. Critics can say whatever they want to and I hope they do. They talk from their own knowledge and experience which is different than mine. Some people love my work, some hate it. Some people look and then look away then look again. They are repulsed and attracted simultaneously. My goal is to make a beautiful painting.

Is there a reason there is a void of color in a majority of your work? 

I use chromatic blacks which usually have 3-5 colors in them so I think of them as full of color.  I like the coolness and remove of black/gray/white palette. I like the reference to black and white photography and film which was the norm when I was growing up.

Can you briefly explain your technique and focus? Who are you subjects? Where do you source?

The first thing I do is come up with an image I want to paint. This I do as a digital file. I crop, change angles, reverse, work with the light/dark contrast. I take everything to black and white.  I have changed genders and ethnicity.  I have substituted a body part from one photo to another.  It is a series of decisions of how to put together these separate parts to make a whole.  Sometimes it takes months to come up with something I like. I have to decide what scale I want the painting to be and what shape.  A square is different than a rectangle and horizontal is different from vertical. They all have different energy. I like working very large and I like working quite small. When I am convinced about the scale and the image, I start. I paint with 2 airbrushes. One is dedicated to white paint and the other to chromatic black. It takes 20-30 layers for the paint to get meaty and subtle with the grays. So it is a slow process and I have learned to be very patient. The paintings look terrible when I am working on them. I am used to that and I know I will get it in the end but I have often seen that look of dismay when I have visitors to my studio. My major focus when working is to get the painting to work somehow abstractly and to pitch itself against the subject matter. When I do it right, neither side takes over. They uneasily co-exist.

The other two questions are not interesting to me. I want people to concentrate on the paintings and not on who the subjects are. That is a distraction. Sort of like asking Cezanne where he gets his apples.

Who are some current artists that inspire you?

There are several artists whose work and development interest me. Lisa Beck, Marylin Minter,  Deborah Kass, Jennifer Wynne Reeves, Judy Bernstein, Lori Ellison and Claudia DeMonte consistently do work I respond to. It is a pleasure to watch them develop.

In your experience, how has the art world changed over the years? 

When I first came to New York when I was in my 20’s, no one was interested in the work of young artists and particularly young women artists. I was consistently told to come back in 10 years or so when I had “found my voice.” While unfortunate from a financial point of view, it was also very liberating. I worked with zero expectation of showing and selling. I could do whatever I wanted. And I did. The art world in New York was also much smaller. Galleries were on 57th Street and the Upper East Side. It was easy to see everything that was on exhibit in 2 afternoons a month. Another thing that I saw change was that when dealers would come to my studio, they always asked me my plans for having children. They clearly did not want to invest any of their resources in artists who would then stop working. Only women were asked this question, never men. I was first exposed to this when I was an undergraduate. One of my teachers said to me “I don’t know why I bother spending time on you. You are only going to get married and have children, anyway”.  I was shocked. After the rise of the feminist movement, dealers got more subtle about this, but it was always present.

While visiting your studio last year, you were working on word paintings, which have been well received. What are you currently working on?  

In addition to the sex works, I am still working on the word paintings. My goal is to do 1000. I have done over 400 so far. So I am still working on them. It will take about another year before I am through. Sometimes I think it will just go on and on and never end. People still send me words or phrases. A recent one is  the Japanese proverb, “Marriage is a woman’s grave.” A friend came over a few weeks ago and laid all of them out for me on the floor on a 4′ wide and 25′ piece of paper. I had never seen them together. This was so helpful. I now have some ideas about how to hang them and how much space they need which I didn’t before. I am having a lot of fun doing them. I get bored easily so I am always pushing to put the paint on in different ways. Some of the ideas I am finished with in a few pieces, others I stay engaged with for some time. I am lately having a lot of fun channeling Richter’s squeegee paintings.

I have been putting the paintings on-line as I do them. I add new ones every few weeks. 

You have a great deal of work displayed in A Chromatic Loss” at Bortolami Gallery. Can you tell us a little bit about the show?

The show’s theme is about lack of color. It was curated by Jeffrey Uslip, who has just been named chief curator at the St. Louis CAM. The show is intergenerational with older established artists like Nancy Grossman, whose pieces greet you at the door and are just as disturbing and moving as they were when I first saw them decades ago; John Coplans who has a magnificent 3-part photo self portrait and a zinger of a piece by Donald Moffett, who I met at the opening along with Robert Gober for the very first time to more emerging artists like Dave Hardy and Michelle Lopez. I have several Censored Grids and Censored Photo’s in the show. I have been censored by two governments so far and I do these pieces as a way to maintain my sanity through it and also to remind myself that it can happen again. Both events were a total surprise; the French in 1973 and the Japanese in 2006.

Before this show, the Censored pieces were only exhibited one at a time. Here there are five of them on the wall together.  Seeing them like this really changed my mind about how they should be shown. They have a lot of impact this way and I could see people wondering what had happened that led to the pieces being made. A good curator at work.

Read more:
A Fond Farewell to Cathy Horyn
Melissa Stetten’s 2013 Lists: Introverts, R. Kelly & George Costanza

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