Bethany Collins (b.1984) was born in Montgomery, AL, and lives and works in Chicago, IL. Collins is a multidisciplinary artist whose conceptual practice examines the relationship between race and language. Centering language—its biases, contradictions, and ability to simultaneously forge connections and foster violence—her works illuminate American histories and offer insight into the development of racial and national identities. Drawing on a wide variety of documents, ranging from nineteenth-century musical scores to US Department of Justice reports, she erases, obscures, excerpts, and rewrites portions of text to bring to the fore the legacy and ongoing trauma of racism in the United States.
Collins’s early series like her 2010 White Noise drawings lay the foundation for her later investigations. Created while pursuing her Master of Fine Arts at Georgia State University, these compositions draw on the artist’s own experience during studio critiques. Using chalk to inscribe and then erase portions of each troubling comment and suggestion white classmates made to her—including, “Do people ever think you’re white?”—Collins describes these drawings as being born from a need to “push language further so it was operating outside myself.”
Externalizing the pain and limits of language, White Noise led Collins to shift from using personal sources in her practice to published texts. Blue Noise (2014–15) revisits celebrated Black science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler’s autobiographical essay “Positive Obsession,” repeating and isolating portions of the text in blue pastel so that it begins to form tangled verbal constellations. For Collins, using blue pastel and ink marked a conceptual shift in her practice. “Blue feels responsive to the … coldness of exclusionary language,” she observed in a 2017 lecture, “It’s not inviting; it’s pushing you away.” Expanding on this idea of exclusion, series like The Southern Review (2014–15) and The Birmingham News (2017) draw attention to historical erasure by foregrounding the racial silencing that can occur through editorial decisions.
Also addressing erasure, Collins’s artist books literalize the act by physically removing material. America: A Hymnal collates one hundred different versions of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” written by causes ranging from the Confederacy to the Temperance Movement. Lasering out the musical notes, Collins excises the shared score that united these various adaptations until all that is left are bits of lasered paper—“the dust of language,” in the artist’s words—a charred corpus of past (in)cohesion. “[Erasure] makes me feel I can control a text that feels out of my hands,” Collins explained in a recent interview. “… I feel a physical mastering of language. By deciding what’s legible, I’m dragging out the meaning already there.”
In series like The Odyssey (2018–ongoing), Collins invests the modernist act of erasure with a charged physicality by using her spit to erase the text. This act represents a literal insertion of her body into Homer’s epic while also rendering the poem largely illegible save for isolated lines. These phrases, excerpted from different English versions of the ancient Greek poem, reflect the iterative, mutable nature of translation. Collapsing past and present, Collins’s excerpted lines draw parallels between Odysseus’s perilous journey and the United States’ current incendiary political climate.
Further reflecting on the nature of contemporary America, Collins’s Dixie’s Land (1859–2001) (2020) transposes 10 adaptations of the 1859 minstrel song that became the de facto anthem of The Confederacy into a minor key. The work overlays these mournful scores with drawings of tear gas fired by police during the protests that erupted in Minneapolis, MN after the murder of George Floyd to highlight centuries of racial
injustice, disenfranchisement, and violence. Collins’s interest in contrafacta continues in more recent works like her 2022 Star-Spangled Banner panels, which isolate lyrics from different versions of the national anthem to expose the language of violence that bolsters American identity. Layering histories to draw attention to what (and who) is missing, these pieces lay bare the exclusionary foundations upon which the United States is built.
In the last several years, Collins’s engagement with music has expanded to encompass immersive sound installations. Often employing polyphonic singing, works like America: A Hymnal (2019) draw on alternative iterations of popular songs. Eschewing vocal harmony, these installations employ competing voices to examine the language that informs identities, capturing, per Collins, “dissenting versions of what it means to be … American bound together.”
Ultimately concerned with what she has termed “the residue of language,” Collins imbues obfuscated traces with a metaphorical weight that challenges established institutions and practices while claiming space for future alternatives. As she concludes, “Everything but words I want you to read.”
Bethany Collins’s work will be the subject of a one-person exhibition America: A Hymnal at Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA, opening in July 2023. Other recent one-person exhibitions include America: A Hymnal, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AK (2021); Evensong, Frist Art Museum, Nashville, TN (2021); My Destiny Is In Your Hands, Montgomery Museum of Fine Art, AL (2021); Chorus, Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, MO (2019); Benediction, The University of Kentucky Art Museum, Lexington, KY (2019); Occasional Verse, The Center for Book Arts, New York, NY (2018); The problem we all live with, Birmingham Museum of Art, AL (2016); and This is How the Myth Repeats, Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, GA (2015). Her works have been featured in numerous group exhibitions, including Monochrome Multitudes, Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, IL (2022); The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA (2021), traveled to Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, TX (2021), Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AR (2022), and Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, CO (2022); Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA (2020), traveled to Seattle Art Museum, WA (2021) and The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. (2021); Direct Message, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, IL (2019); Parallel and Peripheries, Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, MI (2019); Beyond Boundaries, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA (2017); Between Words and Images, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, AL (2017); and Material Histories, The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, NY (2014), among others. Collins’s work is represented in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, IL; Birmingham Museum of Art, AL; The Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL; High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA; Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, AL; The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, NY; The Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Museum, Philadelphia, PA; Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA; Saint Louis Art Museum, MO; The Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, IL; Speed Art Museum, Louisville, KY; and The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, NY, among others. She is the recipient of many awards and grants, including the Joan Mitchell Fellowship (2022); Lucas Artist Fellowship, Montalvo Arts Center, Saratoga, CA (2019); Artadia Award, Chicago, IL (2019); Illinois Arts Council Artist Fellowship, Chicago, IL (2019); Foundation for Contemporary Arts Emergency Grant, New York, NY (2018); The Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant (2015); and the Artadia Award, Atlanta, GA (2014), among others. Bethany Collins is also represented by PATRON Gallery, Chicago, IL.