The dual exhibit of Tom Bettin and Rebecca Livermore, at Phillips Gallery this month, proves that the gallery experience should be an open one, a source of enjoyment for whomever steps inside the gallery door, regardless of educational or demographic background. Basic ideas of abstraction and landscape inform the works of both artists—though they take these ideas in a multiplicity of directions—but the works are immediate enough for instant enjoyment, allowing for a pleasurable experience to the casual observer, as well as more meaningful rewards to the more engaged viewer.
Both artists employ a strong use of the horizontal line. In many of Livermore’s landscapes — “Moab Moment,” “Towering Timpanogos,” “Grand Angles,” “Blue Morning,” – a strong, obvious horizontal line holds the bottom of the picture plane. Everything else sits on top of this line. In Bettin’s work, the horizon line is raised to mid-frame, and there may be little else to suggest that this work is based on the land, but that horizontal line is enough.
Livermore’s works are vivid depictions of the Utah landscape, from the fiery tones of the Colorado plateau to the majestic peaks along the Wasatch Front. They are small, most less than a foot square, yet manage to convey a sense of grandeur. “Scout Looking Heights” is a grand scope, a majestic landscape with its own unique play of arrangements. Physically the subject is massive and from the point it is being painted there is a sense of security in the grandeur, an awesomeness in feeling an over-presence of divinity. This feeling can be tremendous and take the breath away, even when presented in a format that is less than a foot square. At the same time, the burnt light of midday depicted in the piece is a dead time of day. It is the dead zone for the desert and how Livermore applies her paint makes it feel almost lifeless, allowing the hotness of the air to create a dry vacancy that is amplified in the crevice marks that accentuate the planes.
Bettin’s works—oil paintings and monotypes—use a more reduced palette, where white and black play off each other and give intensity to each, highlighted with subtle tones of cool and warm. Much less specific than Livermore’s depictions of actual places, they are still evocative of landscapes, though with the simplest of means. In a series of monoprints, a simple humped form gives some dimension to the sense of landscape. By contrast, “Winter Rift” and “First Snow” are simple works of textured paint, in which the picture plane is divided into three segments. They are still moments a viewer can settle into. This simple visual premise allows Bettin to create a visual dynamism in a work like “Fall Rift.” Considered formally and conceptually, what is seen mostly in “Fall Rift,” is not the most boldly and heavily applied element, but a double-shaft, arrow-crest of beaming of deepest black, jutting through and emphasizing tonalities of white. Through this black base, shards shoot like white empyrean rays. Given this expanse, the viewer might notice the intensity of this spew of black, but what is foremost is the stark whiteness, broken into expressive tonalities.
Viewing these two painters—Bettin, who incorporates a unison of life and pure expression, and Livermore, whose work is also semi-representational and semi-abstract—says many things about the power of art to make a personal connection. Visitors to Phillips may not know anything about Tom Bettin or Rebecca Livermore, but because works of art can be reflections of who the artists are, they may leave feeling they know them better. There may be something to the bold and gestural paintings of Bettin that suggests that nonconformity is his way, or the middle way, this by his color, dexterity and walking a line. Livermore’s malleability of form may have much to say about the depth in her spirit and soul. And this sort of vision, more than simply seeing paint on canvas, may be the point of viewing art at such tremulous times.
Tom Bettin & Rebecca Livermore, Phillips Gallery, Salt Lake City, through Oct. 14.