NSFW: Bruce High Quality Foundation Interviews Artist Betty Tompkins
The current exhibition, REAL ERSATZ features the work of the graphic artist/painter Betty Tompkins, who was creating striking, sexually-explicit work long before terms like “sex-positive” existed, and well before the current wave of Internet-savvy, flesh-peddlers hit the scene.
REAL ERSATZ is Tompkins’s first New York solo show since 2009 and it features her first foray into the digital world. Using imagery from her controversial ‘Fuck’ paintings of the ‘70s, Tompkins created prints topped with airbrushing, reproducing key works using a new set of techniques. The show nods to the contemporary currents in the art world, while re-asserting and refocusing the formal concerns that were the jumping off point for Tompkins’ work in the first place.
Bruce was kind enough to engage in a quick tête-à-tête with Betty at her Prince Street studio, and photographer Priscilla Murray was there to nab some snaps.
BHQF: How did you muster the balls to make this sort of graphic work in the 70s?
BETTY TOMPKINS: A wonderful combination of naïveté and not caring if I was accepted or not. I didn't think it was my job to fit in. What I knew from art history was that you have to strike out on your own to make significant changes to your point of view.
Did you think it was ballsy at the time?
Not until a dealer came to see them. He bolted out of the room, but couldn't help to tiptoe back in, which he actually did backwards. That really got my attention. It made me think that I had done something unexpected. I had maybe three or four of the paintings done by then.
How do you feel about how sex is being addressed in visual art now and how do you align yourself with the new generation artists addressing similar subjects?
I am glad to see the subject being embraced even if I don't always like what I see. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I don't. It's a big subject. I am delighted that they can see my work and support it.
How did you source the imagery for ‘Real Ersatz’?
The Ersatz pieces come from work that was mostly sold directly from my studio so was never publicly shown—all but one of them and that one was reoriented to a horizontal from a vertical. Real Ersatz was a great opportunity to give them a second life, which is something I feel strongly about.
The original sources remain porn from the 1950's, new porn from online and print, and images that people send me. Whatever the source, I put the image through many processes until I have a file that I have conviction about. I have changed gender, ethnicity, body parts, color, light, cropping, orientation, etc. I like that the image in some way comes to me from the world but I won't paint it until I have done enough to it that it is mine.
I thought they were very different until Jarrett Earnest pointed out the similarities. There are some Pure Ersatz pieces in the show but most of them combine printing with the airbrush and right now that is really grabbing me.
BHQF: Speaking of new technologies, what’s your view on Internet and post-Internet art?
Same as on anything else: some is great, some is not so great. I am looking forward to seeing how it develops.