Chicago

Deborah Butterfield

Zolla/Lieberman Gallery

Deborah Butterfield makes utopian horses—horses not of this world. They have no genitals, they bypass regular “horse” anatomy, and they are made for indoors only. Artists often elevate God’s beastly creatures: Anne Arnold’s cows are kitsch, living-room gestures with no shit in their tails; Don Nice’s paintings are comparative, diagrammatic, animal-object hierarchies; and Nancy Graves’s transmit natural vitality through an artificial symbol. But Butterfield gives over even more, in psychological, and even physical ways.

There are three phases of horse in this exhibition. All were executed in relatively the same way. A handmade armature of steel and chickenwire is densely wrapped with papier maché, and covered with a final coat or glaze of various materials. At first, Butterfield worked with “beauty”: separate horses, nicely rounded, features engraved, and a hi-gloss, ceramic glaze over rainbow, candlewax-color paint. Her “phase two” sculpture paced out a little faster: smoothed-over features, clear glazed on brown paper, a few jerky movement-tendencies that signal nervousness. The recent work moves on ahead. These horses have a bony, hungry anatomy, a disagreeable, sinister, even deathlike look. A thin wrapping of papier maché is roughened with straw, paint, earth, and dextrine, the latter substance closely associated with dung. These are the first of her figures to be made as a herd. I got an ominous kind of feeling wandering among them—large shadow-beings all around—which, I imagine, would intensify if the group were more closely impacted in its space.

Esthetically, this herd suffers. The figures are too slavishly horselike. To emphasize their underlying content, they could have been more amorphous or fragmented. A few ears might be lopped off, body transitions made less conventional. When Butterfield is artful, it’s often overdone: the “nice” pattern of straw over dextrine, the “proper” vitality of white acrylic on the straw, the “intimate” way one soiled muzzle sniffs a neck modelled to receive it. More effective is the mood which emanates from unexpected tilts in these wicked, curious, sniffing, blind, nudging, attentive heads, from the shadows in eye sockets or nostril pits, the size of cheeks in relation to the ears.

But the truly fascinating issue here is the nature of Butterfield’s process. I was astonished to learn that she uses her own body as a measure for each horse. For instance, she takes the length between her finger and thumb and transposes it to the width of a horse’s forehead, or uses head to chest for mane to shoulder. There is a physical “absorption” suggested. In fact, the idea of Horse may represent for her only a blank, square canvas, a neutral, non-problematic, nonassertive vehicle through which she can express her own oppositions: generosity and hunger, strength and dissolution, childishness and knowledge of death. To eliminate the genitals, for example, renders impotent, undefined, or “nonexistent”—what more suitable condition in which to project one’s own point of view? It may be that these sculptures about “horses” are made by a woman who sees them as extensions of herself.

C.L. Morrison