Bettina Hubby: Positively Earnest
through March 23, 2019
Klowden Mann, Culver City
By Shana Nys Dambrot
It’s a mantra, it’s a safe word, it’s a daily affirmation, it’s a compulsion. Whether all of this and more, Bettina Hubby’s bright neon beacon reading “Positively Earnest” is a signal of the artist’s intention to make you feel better — even if that’s not always what you expect from contemporary art. A series of word-based works play out across canvas and photograph (and neon and garment), as single words are emblazoned on the artist’s power-stance derriere across a selection of peaceable landscapes, and vast accumulations of words are meticulously rendered as day-glow typography on canvas.
The art history of text-based works is diverse in style and intention, not to mention complications of context, fluency, dialect, and legibility, but it always ends up at the same liminal ping-pong place between seeing and reading, which is not cognitively possible to do at the same time. On one hand, words are content, a kind of narrative, chosen for a reason be it cynical, citational, or shocking. Think of Basquiat, Christopher Wool, Glenn Ligon, Tracey Emin, Barbara Kruger… On the other, they are abstract shapes, elements of composition, as for example with Jasper Johns chosen as random stand-ins for agreed-upon forms. Then there’s street art, from tagging to Wild Style, where a font was a form of self-portraiture. Then there’s Bettina Hubby.
Her staggeringly precise and patient expanses of all-caps words arranged in rows unfurl across her canvases in regimented shapes with gradients of rich fluorescent colors — orange, yellow, purple — so that even in the absence of comprehension of the text, whether from distance or not reading/speaking English, there is emotional movement in the op-art vibration of the choreographed tones. But as to the words, know they are anything but random. They are alphabetized adjectives with which the artist identifies herself, deliberately optimistic, empathetic, and aspirational. “…EARNEST, EBULLIENT, ECO-FRIENDLY…MINDFUL, MUSICAL, NATURAL, NOBLE…VERSATILE, VIBRANT, VIGOROUS…” and so on.
Hubby describes the process of creating these word paintings as “a physical manifestation of experience-dependent neuroplasticity,” which is the process of changing one’s brain through (hopefully positive) reinforcement. In creating this art, she is quite literally also creating herself. In the related photographs, she shows us what that looks like in the world. Choosing one word each to go where “Juicy” goes on yoga pants, she is seen in a posture of power, clarity, and readiness against a series of natural landscapes — again, quite literally taking her wisdoms back out into the world, to greet it anew, as someone new. She faces away from the camera, not to turn her back to the viewer but rather to help direct our gaze, like hers, toward the future.