Slices of Light | Art Review | Chicago Reader

Slices of Light 

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William Betts's ten paintings at Peter Miller were made by machine using pixel-high slices he chose from his digital photographs. In most cases he began with images of nature. "I'm attracted to gardens--to the formality of their intersection between man and nature," he says. Threshold and Bird's Eye View were made from photos of the same irrigated field in France "taken at different times of day so you have different kinds of light." Myth of Insight comes from a shot of a Japanese maple in autumn. End of Certainty comes from "this grove of beautiful cherry trees blossoming in the spring in Copenhagen, a wonderful combination of budding green and little pink flowers and eggshell blue sky." Viewed from different positions, the paintings change: lines visible up close sometimes blend, pointillism style, from afar.

Betts first remembers looking carefully at things at age six or seven. As a boy living in New York City he drew cutaways of submarines, trying to understand how they worked. His architect father, who designed modernist homes, had blueprints and models in their house and also collected art: Calder, Kline, Tinguely, Albers. Betts's mom was a photographer, and he began taking photos at ten. By his early teens he was "interested in surfaces and was photographing lawns, walls, fences, sides of buildings." He also did some subway graffiti, and on a trip to the Bahamas one summer made drawings of palm trees--and sold them there.

Having dropped out of Hampshire College after one semester, Betts started frequenting Studio 54 during the club's heyday. "Here was this incredible amplified visual and auditory sensation. There was always something to look at, somebody's costume, a creative energy, a sexual energy." After several years in Manhattan he moved to Arizona and started a small company marketing natural gas. He was also painting abstractions at the time but felt that if he was going to continue painting he needed to "develop a point of view." He returned to college, graduating from Arizona State in 1991 with an art degree, but found that the paintings he'd been making based on aerial landscape photos failed to interest galleries in Scottsdale. Though he continued to paint for several years, he took a series of technology jobs in Houston and eventually got too busy.

Then in 2001, Betts's job began to require travel throughout Europe. "The U.S. has become a fairly homogenized place," he says. "I'll see many of the same things on a street corner in Houston that I'll see in Chicago. When I spent a Friday in Milan and then the weekend in Provence, the things that I would see would be very different. I started taking tons of digital photos--fields, gardens, people shopping. I viewed this as gathering visual data. I think I was already making the decision to become an artist again." He started playing with the images on his computer: he cut a pixel-high slice from one photo and "extruded" it, turning each pixel into a vertical line. Its mix of regularity and irregularity seemed to reflect both the digital and natural worlds.

But the images remained in his computer until 2002, when the company Betts was working for was sold and he returned to Houston to make art. Tackling the problem of translating his extruded images to paint, he designed and built a computer-controlled machine that applies paint with miniature rollers, permitting lines as thin as 1/100th of an inch. Once he had a body of work that satisfied him, he started looking for galleries to represent him. Having worked in sales, he knew that "you have to make cold calls. Some artists say, 'I can't deal with rejection.' But I know it's a numbers game. Being rejected is positive, because if ten people reject me I'm closer to acceptance." He approached more than 100 New York galleries over eight months before finding one, and he now has galleries in eight cities.

William Betts

When: Through Sat 3/11

Where: Peter Miller, 118 N. Peoria

Info: 312-951-1700

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