My work veers toward the intersection of sculpture, performance, and installation; and is defined by a series of radically disparate multimedia projects unified by their intentional unpredictability, use of unstable materials, and orchestration of situations in which my body and/or a constructed space are subjected to various hazards and forces of disorder. With each piece, my intent—although never completely pre-determined—is to push a range of materials to the limits of their utility, while placing myself in precarious circumstances that simultaneously function as metaphors of emotional/psychic vulnerability and pure demonstrations of intentional disarray. Generally, I make a mess—but it’s a purposeful, highly textured mess.
The germ of each piece is found through imposed limitations—in space, time, on my own perception/mobility, etc.—which leads to improvisation. I begin by putting myself in a bind; then force myself to find the beginnings of a project within a night or a couple hours, scrambling to figure out key parameters of which I did not/could not conceive in the planning stages. The initial restrictions and disorientation—especially the feelings of being rushed, confined, and otherwise pressured—reinvigorates me, spurring the discovery of new processes, and contributing to the final evolution and shape of the project. I attempt to pair this process with one or more of my ongoing obsessions/areas of interest, such as: how the mind and body respond to their surroundings when they’re overwhelmed or immersed in extreme conditions; and how certain materials behave when applied to tasks for which they’re wholly unsuited.
My piece “Window Screens” illustrates this combination of material and psychological concerns and how they collide in the heat of performance. In the piece, I built a steel box around myself in the corner of a room, then hung the box with window screens (on wire cords) and filled it with black ink. In the performance, I continuously dipped screens in ink as fast as I could. Each screen would hold the ink and become opaque, but then quickly return to transparency. In this cyclical labor of great difficulty and short-lived success, determination meets the impossible, with every aspect of the endeavor—from the materials to the person attempting to manipulate them—clearly not up to the task. Eventually the box began hemorrhaging ink and it spread across the floor to the viewers, emptying the apparatus and foiling my efforts completely.
Some degree of personal vulnerability and/or seeming ruination is present in all my performances, which in turn evoke certain responses from the audience, ranging from befuddlement and fascination to genuine sympathy or solicitousness. (Audience members have occasionally offered to help me during what they perceived as a moment of distress in the midst of my performance.)
In contrast to practical labor—and even most art—my work involves extensive preparation, toward no precise goal or predictable outcome, but rather the opposite: to create a uniquely precarious situation whose exact results are ambiguous and actually lead to disruption and upheaval. The specific thematic ideas that I wish to communicate with my work are important to me and essential to my art, but the work has other dimensions, which naturally emerge from the process of engineering a situation whose “moment of truth” is variable. This makes each piece—and my work as a whole—a vehicle for possibilities, achieved through transient/unknowable states. Above all, I am trying to create an effect based on certain assumptions, within a definite structure and clear parameters; but within these guidelines, randomness, even personal risk (certainly public embarrassment), are not just potentialities, but expectations.
Julia Betts was born in 1991 in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania and is currently based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 2014, Betts earned a BA from the University of Pittsburgh and, in 2017, graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design with an MFA in Sculpture. At the University of Pittsburgh, Betts was recognized with six awards and two undergraduate research grants. Betts has exhibited in numerous solo shows at venues including Second Sight Studio, Columbus, Ohio; and Unsmoke Systems, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In addition, she completed artist-in-residence programs at Second Sight Studio and Bunker Projects. While at the Rhode Island School of Design, she developed the performative aspect of her sculpture practice through coursework at RISD and Brown University and was the recipient of the SLH Young Scholarship. Since graduating, she has participated in group exhibitions in Brooklyn, New York, at Microscope Gallery, Re: Art Show, and Flux Factory.
Experience the art of Julie Betts in Peripheral Vision No. 8
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