Shotgun Review

When Worlds Collide

By Shotgun Reviews January 27, 2010

“It’s living in such close quarters,” Tom Betthauser tells me, “that has made the immune system so important to human evolution.”

The particular point of view that Betthauser employs in his recent drawings and paintings, known as isometric perspective, is an indispensible tool for architects and engineers. Drawn from the safety of an eagle’s eye view, Betthauser’s precise work so closely mimics architectural illustrations that he is beginning to find himself in demand even outside the fine arts world. Borrowing from their visual repertoire, Betthauser’s drawings propose a critical distance from which to observe a scene with scientifically objective neutrality.

Isometric perspective aims to expose what’s hidden within. For example, the “See Inside” children’s book series take both new and old buildings and break them apart for a greater understanding through straightforward diagrams. We can safely assume that Betthauser wants to reveal more than what’s hidden behind the layers of brick and concrete, since his work also examines the social problems latent beneath the upbeat façade of progress. However, the tenderness of the renderings coats his scientific observations with a layer of sentimentality. The drawings are Betthauser’s microscope, and the architectural junk around us—the bay windows, roof tiles, diving boards, tents, Winnebagos, Toyotas, barbeques, lawn chairs and beer coolers—well, they’re his butterfly collection.

Betthauser’s vocabulary of source material draws on the vernacular architecture of the contemporary landscape. This practice involves driving around San Francisco’s Sunset District, Daly City, and Marin County in his Buick taking pictures of the precise ways that light falls on boring-as-hell buildings. It’s not quite Edward Hopper’s Anytown, USA, but might as well be. However, I’m not content to write off his work as another nagging warning about suburbia’s ills. Betthauser’s dispute with the nagging moral superiority of the supposedly objective, all-knowing sciences show in his drawing Hubble Trouble, which depicts the Hubble telescope crashing to into an observatory.

American Entropy: 747
, 2009; acrylic on panel. Courtesy of the Artist and Peanut Gallery, San Francisco.

Systems fail.

You may call it that, or you might also call it entropy. Either way, there’s a precision in what Betthauser’s drawings break apart. And while Betthauser is deconstructing aircrafts, space shuttles and stations, the people in his world are looking to get out — to buck the system. Betthauser’s interest in escapism makes perfect sense because he has never really left the Bay Area. It wasn’t until the summer of 2009, at 22, that he first visited L.A. and Portland. I like to imagine Betthauser has a world map in his room onto which he slowly draws expanding circles, and as he considers which cardinal direction to head in next, he’s contemporaneously thinking about going up, up, up, and out.

It’s ironic that in order to break apart space shuttles and display their interiors, Betthauser had to show them in states of ruin. NASA knows, as we know, that one day our space shuttles, cars, and electronic devices will become outdated, crash, or die. The planned obsolescence is built in; it’s part of the process of making way for the next generation. It’s a memento mori, one of the oldest themes in art history, and rightly so.

“It’s the ultimate entropy.” Tom continued. “We have to make sure that the next generation has stronger immune systems; so they get sick less.”


“When Worlds Collide” is on view at the Peanut Gallery until January 30th 2010.


Warren Thomas King is an artist who lives and works in San Francisco. He was formerly the Arts Editor for the Montgomery College Advocate.


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