There’s no trace of her Southern upbringing in Anna Betbeze’s speech. “It just sort of disappeared,” claims the 35-year-old artist, whose drawl was flattened when she left Georgia, at age 24 for New Haven, Connecticut (she got her MFA at Yale) and then New York (where she’s been living and working since 2006). There’s even less of the South in her artwork—no nods to rustic agrarianism, no bits of rusty pop ephemera. Though as otherworldly and nonreferential as her ripped-up wall-hung textiles might seem, there is something hauntingly personal about them. Something Gothic, even.
Betbeze (pronounced Bet-bees) labors in her Brooklyn studio to transform shag wool rugs of various depths into Day-Glo freak-folk abstractions. This she does with the help of an array of dyes and gessoes, subjecting the fabrics to a highly physical process of weathering that includes burning holes through them and ripping them by hand. As she puts it, “It’s about conjuring almost a list of verbs,” the pieces communicating, through their almost uncanny material presence, the messy tactile experiences (“cutting, tearing, lacerating”) that the artist went through to create them.
As much as the work is a testament to its own creation, Betbeze is eager to distance her approach from more process-based art. “These come much more out of living my life, even though there is a critique embedded within that,” she says. Rather than looking to art itself (or, gasp, to the art world), she prefers to see herself and her art as an attempt to fashion fresh and ever more evocative environments. Her determination—to preserve a certain “otherness,” remaining in a disciplinary twilight zone between art and environmental design—comes through in the feeling one gets around her work, a mingled feeling of awe and dread spiked with a little psychedelic nostalgia. “It’s a sensory experience,” she says. “I always feel we take in information not just through the eyes, but through the whole body.”