Artist Martha Betts grapples with brain cancer and lives to paint about it. 

Cathartic Art

Catharsis is defined as a form of emotional release that restores the spirit, especially after an overwhelming experience. The arts have long been employed to trigger this response — Aristotle believed tragic drama was cathartic; Mozart used music; Van Gogh painted. Martha Betts' current exhibition, "Surviving Impressions," at Virginia Commonwealth University's School of the Arts building operates too as a purifying agent for the artist and audience alike.

Betts, a survivor of brain cancer, unpacked the emotional and physical baggage she'd been carrying in the aftermath of surgery and radiation. The result: 13 paintings and one sculpture. Arranged chronologically, the paintings move left to right, retelling the story of Betts' encounter with the disease, from symptoms of double vision to MRI and angiograms to surgery and recovery.

In the center of the room, the one sculptural piece, "Taking Aim," serves as a locus of these intense and dramatic events. The sculpture itself has a malignant quality in its gray-and-white pallor and abrupt truncation of the human torso. Betts uses the actual mask that she wore during radiation treatment — a netted web that stretches across a papier-mché head. It seems to function as a type of relic, potent with real-life experience and memory. The life-size head and torso are placed on a black, Astroturf-covered pedestal. The grisaille palette evokes the cold, sterile character of a hospital and the pernicious process of metastasis. Yet, the artist sees the work as capturing "the indomitable spirit of the human being." Although most of Betts' paintings are testaments to hope and new beginnings, the sculpture, despite the artist's claim, seems to speak to the inevitability of death, reinforced by the cadaverous quality of the body laid out on a table.

Betts varies her angles and perspective points in a curious fashion. In some paintings, the viewer becomes the artist, seeing what she sees. In both the works, "Life Line" and "Bedside Table," the viewer is placed in the hospital bed, looking up sharply at the Bible and flower arrangement on the table, or at the hospital curtain and I.V. bag swinging from a pole. In other works, the audience is rendered an outsider, voyeuristically peeking over the shoulder of the artist as she and her husband observe an X-ray of her skull.

These shifting viewpoints are slightly disconcerting, further reinforcing the personal nature of the artist's journey. Paradoxically, Betts often averts the face of her portrait so that the viewer sees only her profile or back of her head. This allows one to place his or her own image there, thus underlining the universality of passing through an intense experience and coming out altered yet whole again. The various angles could also be understood more physically as the "out-of-body" sensation of going under anesthesia.

"Surviving Impressions" bravely navigates its audience through one person's journey of disease and survival. Painfully personal, yet purposefully public, Betts takes a chance on art and life and emerges, with her viewer, securely intact.


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