View of “Anna Betbeze,” 2015. From left: Tangle, 2014; Sludge, 2014; Naples, 2014.

View of “Anna Betbeze,” 2015. From left: Tangle, 2014; Sludge, 2014; Naples, 2014.

Anna Betbeze

View of “Anna Betbeze,” 2015. From left: Tangle, 2014; Sludge, 2014; Naples, 2014.

The nine works that were displayed in Anna Betbeze’s exhibition “Plush Vision” are both absurd and compelling. Created from flokati rugs—a type of woolen shag rug originally made in the north of Greece and now widely available—they appear, at first glance, to have been abused and distressed with fire as well as paint. Betbeze’s process involves searing the wool with pieces of smoldering wood and coal, soaking it in an acid dye, and weathering it outdoors, as well as shaving and perforating it. For her, the “soft white wool seemed [the] perfect ground to spill, stain, and defile.” This foregrounds the physicality of Betbeze’s rough and hardy approach to process: “Sometimes when they’re full of dye,” the artist explains of the rugs she works with, “they weigh two hundred pounds so I have to wrestle them.” And this sense of struggle—like wrestling a wild animal?—comes through in the visual end result.

For example, Tangle, 2014, appeared to have been casually slung over the gallery’s central freestanding wall like a throw over a sofa. It is richly colored in mottled tones of cold purple, green, and blue, while ash-edged holes are sprayed in a swath, mostly across the top portion. Visually, the work itself is divided in the middle, with the top half thinner and more closely shaved, as well as lighter in color; this was the only piece in this group with such an obvious division. The darker bottom part still possesses thicker tufts and long strands of hairy fiber. The strands of dyed wool, distressed and worn, are like painterly brushmarks, and yet they seem to trap light, unlike the reflective undulations of paint on canvas.

The other works in the show, such as the largest piece, the orange-and-pink-hued Sludge, 2014, hung from their two top corners, visibly displaying the effects of gravity, as in the felt sculptures of Robert Morris. They also suggest animal skins, although in the case of Sludge, given its highly artificial-looking coloration, it seems more likely to be a fake animal than a real one—perhaps a giant Care Bear or Muppet. The carpets inevitably evoke 1970s home-furnishing styles, and they might also be tinged with something of that decade’s feminist-art discourse, with its calls for the recuperation of textiles and other craft traditions—though Betbeze puts a more violent spin on such ideas.

Though abject in appearance, Betbeze’s work exudes an absurd humor—one accompanied, moreover, by a distinctive painterly beauty. The pieces could be considered sculptural reliefs, and yet their painterliness, embodied in the glowing color that has soaked into the strands of fabric, provides a resistant counterpoint to their materiality. Betbeze seems to be subtly referencing a wide range of twentieth-century abstraction. Her saturated color and use of fire, for example, recall Yves Klein, though she is a materialist whereas his concerns were metaphysical. In addition, these works have a physical presence akin to that of a Clyfford Still, yet seem to work toward the color space of such post-painterly abstractionists as Helen Frankenthaler or Jules Olitski. As in their work, we encounter in Betbeze’s rugs soft color zones without a distinct image, but in contrast to theirs, her work possesses a haptic color sensibility. It is as if Betbeze were trying to fuse the materiality of Arte Povera with the immateriality of the Color Field painter. As the artist herself says, “Being on the wall, dealing with color and surface, tactility—everything relates back to painting.”

Sherman Sam