Tom Betts’ exquisitely rendered teacups undoubtedly fit into the tradition of realist painting, but there is far more at work here than what meets the eye. Adding deep layers of meaning and metaphor to the cups and saucers that dominate his oil paintings, the Salt Lake City–based artist takes realism to sophisticated new levels, successfully employing figuration to capture more elusive concepts, such as the nature of existence, in a way more commonly achieved through abstraction.
For his first solo show at Dawson Cole Fine Art, Betts presented fifteen paintings from three recent series. His handling of light, color, texture, and composition is as compelling as that of the most accomplished academic painters of the past. Observing his subjects from both life and photographs, he carefully captures nuances of light and shadow, line and form to create atmospheric images that lure the viewer in with their mysterious subjects: single or multiple porcelain cups and saucers. But these works, of course, are not just vehicles to display his expert handling of paint and well-trained eye. Rather, for Betts, each represents a different temporal state, present, past, and future, which in turn work to visually articulate an intangible aspect of existence.
In his “Tea & Sea” series, which represents the present, each cup floating in the gray sea—Salt Lake, to be exact—is a kind of metaphoric portrait of the artist himself. These are empty vessels to be filled, in this case with all of the outside influences that become internalized to form one’s identity. An apt metaphor of the human condition, the cup’s position is contingent on the surrounding ripples, and yet its presence also affects the ripples themselves.
The past is invoked by “Tea & Peaches,” the most evocative of traditional still life painting. Here, Betts depicts cups and saucers on a shelf with jars of preserved fruit, warmly backlit, as though lights had been dimmed, and intertwined with delicate, festive strings of lights. The past is summoned by the Proustian, abstract sense of a social interaction having happened—a party, a meal, a conversation.
His most dramatic series, “Repouring Tea,” takes on the future. The cups in each of these have been broken into fragments, which hover in a frozen moment before crashing down. Named after parts of the body, each also conveys a kind of futuristic sense of movement by way of invoking the body. Each is titled after a different body part (in French, as he first found inspiration in Paris), and imparts corporeal movement through the arrangement of the fragments. La Main, for instance, suggests the twisting of a wrist. The broken cup emerges as the perfect analogy for the simultaneous sense of fragmentation and wholeness at the core of existence, while also invoking the threshold between the known and unknown.
His work has been featured in Southwest Art Magazine, on Park City Mountain Morning News, in the Spring Salon at the Springville Museum of Art and in the Artists for the New Century Show at the Bennington Center for the Arts.
"Light in my work is meant to seem transitory like a story that takes a few moments to tell then fades into memory. Watching these tales of light flicker and come together to build something so beautiful and subtle is the reason I paint and seeing the life grow from it continues to feed my desire to understand and relate it.”
- Tom Betts