All artists face criticism. And when artist Bethany Collins was confronted with ugly, racially charged critiques of her work, she took control of that criticism and shaped the words into a powerful artistic message.
The first comprehensive exhibition of the works of Bethany Collins is currently on view at the University Galleries in Normal. “Bethany Collins: A Pattern or Practice” reveals how the artist utilizes language as a medium.
The works date back almost a decade, to the start of Collins' career. One of the earliest on display is a large blackboard. On it, racially charged sentences, such as "Do people ever think you’re white?", have been written out, then erased. They share the space with swarms and constellations of block white letters that scatter across the black space. The work is from a series entitled “White Noise.”
Exhibition curator and Galleries Director Kendra Paitz said with the work, Collins started addressing the intersection of race and language.
“These early works from 'White Noise' come out of personal experiences. When she was in graduate school, she would have these critiques, and when you’re a student and you’re making artwork, you are constantly making yourself really vulnerable. You’re making something and you’re putting it up in front of all of your peers and your faculty for it to be evaluated out loud," she said.
“Her experience was that people would say these racially charged things about her work, and she started to take that language and turn it into her work. So these really shocking and not at all helpful critiques got her start working with that language. It was a way of processing it, of breaking down its power.”
Collins did not pre-plan the composition of the block letters lifted from the critiques.
“She just started writing and writing and writing and did so until she couldn’t physically write those words anymore. In this 'White Noise' series, you can see the sentences written in the background, but erased."
Collins work highlights the different ways we receive language. The blackboard represents the authority of academia. In other works in the exhibition, Collins utilizes definitive sources on language: dictionaries. Walking up to the trio of dictionaries in the gallery space they seem unassuming, said Paitz.
“A dictionary sitting open on a stand is something that so many of us have encountered before. So here we have three different dictionaries. One is 'Colorblind Dictionary,' one is 'Colorless Dictionary,' and one is 'Black and Blue Dictionary.' And in each instance, she’s gone through, cover-to-cover, and erased terms. So, in 'Black and Blue Dictionary,' she erased every term related to the colors black or blue. Just one page, there are probably at least 25 erasures.”
“Bethany is probably the only person I know that’s not only read a single dictionary cover-to-cover, she’s done it multiple times. She’s analyzed it, she’s thought about each term in it and then erased it. She’s interested in the way these dictionaries are put together. Who was the editorial board for them? She’s thinking about these different authorities of language and how the editor’s biases get embedded with each edition.”
For Collins, said Paitz, language is the ultimate medium.
“Bethany Collins: A Pattern or Practice” is currently up at the University Galleries through March 31.
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