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To what extent are William Betts' paintings paintings?

This is not a purely rhetorical question. The works he has currently at Holly Johnson Gallery are fantastically intricate abstractions whose dazzling effects come from the artist's computer program via an ink jet printer.

from William Betts' show

Betts has found the ultimate studio assistant who will tirelessly obey his wishes and the results can be spectacular. But are these paintings or graphics? There is not enough time, patience, or masking tape in the world to produce these works by hand. It would be like trying to hand knit a Missoni sweater. Of course no one would demand that the artist's hand be intimately involved with every aspect of his production. We have too many examples dating from the Renaissance studio to Jeff Koons too nurture such a notion.

On a more local note, Ludwig Schwarz has had paintings based on his own digital images produced by skilled Chinese workers and editioned in series of five. This gets to what bothers me about Betts' practice. Shwarz engages the question of originality in his work and Betts doesn't seem to have come to a comfortable resolution for that question.

Betts emphasizes the improvisational aspect of his process – when he feeds information into the program he does not exactly what will come out — but he must have developed a sense of what information will create what results. At the gallery two paintings seem to be identical except for color combinations, and you can see in others how information that produces radiating effects can be cut in half for more static progressions that can then be used either vertically or horizontally.

In his artist's statement Betts acknowledges his relation to Op artists while establishing a “small but critical distinction” in the way his effects are achieved via layering rather than depiction. Op Art made the cover of Artforum this month, and one of the articles located its retro appeal in the handmade quality of the paintings. That's the same kind of appeal Susie Rosmarin engages with her visually dazzling paintings that compared to Betts' high tech productions have a funky, homemade feel.

But what is gained by Betts' increased complication of the image? And are comparisons to work like Rosmarin's even valid? Betts has also created a series of works using a pixilation program that reproduces surveillance photographs. How do these relate to the new Op abstractions? And how do all the works engage their dependence on the technology that produces them?

also by Charles Dee Mitchell
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