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Image of Certain, 1982

Bethany Collins
American, born 1984

Certain, 1982


Object Type: Drawing
10 1/2 x 32 1/2 in. (27 x 83 cm)
Medium and Support: Graphite and toner on paper
Accession Number: 2017.0002

Credit Line: Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts Association Purchase

Bethany Collins (born 1984) is fascinated by language, in all its forms—spoken, written, and sung.(1) It is the basis for human expression and communication and is a social and cultural phenomenon that shifts over time as meaning and understanding continue to evolve. Words can hold multiple meanings or may be coded to reinforce our own perceptions of the world, subconsciously influencing the listener or reader. For Collins, “language is both the means and the reason to get at meaning.” (2)

One of her ongoing series is the "Contronyms," which includes "Certain, 1982" (2015) in the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts' permanent collection. In this series, Collins renders, in graphite, various entries from the 1982 edition of Webster’s New World Dictionary of American Language. Using her saliva, she then erases, blurs, and obliterates all but one relevant definition highlighting the contronym (or words that contain their opposite meaning) or idiom inherent in the definition. The work poetically relates to the personal and collective ways we interpret language and meaning; to mark-making; and to her body, as the nature of her process can be, at times, physically demanding. Collins has said, “Everything has a kind of pain in it. I know the work is valuable when it is somehow painful. It could be abstracted forever, but I know the works are done when my hand hurts and I have to stop the piece.” (3)

While the creation of her work tests Collins’ physical limits, it is not only an endurance exercise. Collins aims to highlight the contradiction that is inherent in the English language underscoring the possibilities raised between concrete and ambiguous phrases. This is where her work becomes most powerful, as it forces us to take stock of what we say, what we mean, and how we use language. Collins’ selections of which phrases to feature in this series also take on additional meanings in the context of her larger body of work. Each pairing also references race and identity. Explaining what drew her to the binary nature of contronyms, Collins states that each contronym “means both of those [contradictory] things at the same time, and yet, somehow, it has come to exist in the world. So that series feels like we can be talking about race…but at the same time we can be talking about 10 to 100 other things; it is everything and nothing, the coexistence, and the opposite of binary. The way that language and how we understand each other has inherently failed.” (4)

(1) Unless footnoted, all direct quotes or paraphrasing originate from conversations and interviews with the artist conducted by the author between February 2014 and February 2021.
(2) Bethany Collins quoted in the exhibition brochure, Bethany Collins: The Problem We All Live With, Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, AL, April 16-August 7, 2016.
(3) Collins quoted in Amarie Gipson, “Bethany Joy Collins: Undersong // Patron Gallery,” The Seen: Chicago’s International Journal of Contemporary & Modern Art, November 29, 2018. While Collins made this statement about a different body of work, it is true of this series as well.
(4) Collins quoted in “Bethany Collins Talks to Paul Stephen Benjamin,” Burnaway, May 18, 2015. paul-stephen-benjamin/

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