Deborah Butterfield

Several years ago, I wrote about DEBORAH BUTTERFIELD’s work and noted the connection between her horses and the artist herself, the way she used her own body measurements to determine their physical proportions, and the lack of any genitals which left them open to interpretation with any identity. Ms. Butterfield expressed dismay at that review, saying it missed the point of her work. But reviews are not necessarily the vision of the artist; for otherwise, might not artists simply write their own reviews? Shouldn’t work be capable of affecting someone rather than simply stimulating a safe reiteration of what the artists themselves say about their own work. Isn’t that an intrinsically valuable sign that the art succeeds?

In her current show, the sculpture now appears less physically representational than before—a definite plus inasmuch as Butterfield’s horses have generally seemed only partially concerned with horses. She now takes still more artistic license to make them represent the recipients of outer forces, and yet, amazingly enough, they still remind you of horses in a sort of spiritual sense. Not D. H. Lawrence’s wild, sexual, chaotic horses but the gentle, sniffing horses you see when they’re feeding in a barn—all this without being documentarily representative.

I personally see these animals as symbols of suffering. Mud-covered, caged and webbed with heavy, rough sticks that follow the structure of each leg, burden the tail, criss-cross over the nose. The animal part that is the horse body still seems physically intact, which adds pathos as the once still normally functioning being contrasts with the extraneous, foreign, ugly growth. The more gentle they seem, stilled in motion and sniffing at one another in a kind of community, the more evil become the sticks wired onto their bodies. Pieces of the wire tips poke up like thorns or barbed wire, and in just a few places the bodies are pierced or torn, allowing a viewer to look into the hollow insides, furthering a sensation that the images are not really real and that the sculptures are ghost horses or fleeting allusions to ideas.

Butterfield’s smaller horses transmit little if any of this pathos. They appear as little souvenirs of the big ones, like the fake gold jewelry which is sold after a visit to King Tut, and with only a few exceptions, they look made for selling—not every collector has space for the full-size animal. As such, these smaller works carry Butterfield’s art no further.

The progress of Butterfield’s sculpture, having gone from initially sunny, colorful, candy-coated realism to this immanent crushing of the animal under the burden of exterior weight makes one wonder how her progression will conclude. Fragments in the gallery take on a feeling of the perennial human condition; turned out into the world, functioning and eager, do we gradually through life acquire a web of sticks, despite which we must continue to negotiate our movement? Nor is Butterfield’s brand of “dehumanization” an evolution which seems brought from the inside, as a Dorian Gray, but it is, rather, clearly a process imposed from outside. One longs to see the horse unbound, free to be. But what of us is the horse? What of us is the burden?

C. L. Morrison