San Francisco

Deborah Butterfield

The Oakland Museum

Despite confining her subject matter throughout the past decade to horses and related material, Deborah Butterfield has continued to expand her sculpture in both its formal and its expressive aspects. After her graduate studies in ceramic sculpture at the University of California at Davis in the early ’70s she made elaborate ceramic saddles, and subsequently constructed horses out of chicken wire and steel armatures covered by plaster or paper, or by mud, branches, weeds, and other indigenous rural elements. Over the decade these works evolved from smoothly realistic forms to more roughly abstract ones, while the union of an animal subject and the mélange of raw, natural substances it was made of acquired the impact of a dramatic, almost primal, icon.

In contrast to the organic surfaces of previous sculptures, those here, from 1981, are constructed of remnants of architectural and industrial materials. The almost full-size horses still display kinesthetically lifelike postures and silhouettes, yet their bodies are composed of tangled wire, bunched fencing in latticed metal or wood slats, and ripped corrugated siding—sometimes pierced by splintery planks which jut outward. The dense conglomerations do not cover an armature but are built up from the inside out.

All of the eight sculpted horses display inventive manipulations of the found materials. Ponder juxtaposes dark, pointed planks crisscrossing the torso with the loose grid pattern of wire fencing that forms its body. The looped bales of barbed wire comprising the body cavities and eye socket of Rondo allude to the circular motif suggested by the horse’s name, but alternatively resemble both tumbleweed and a charcoal drawing with rhythmic circles. Scrap Iron is more loosely gestural; its sparse overlay of undulating iron rods incorporates negative space to schematically describe a reclining horse, and a sole arc-shaped line extends elegantly to represent neck and head. In contrast, the jumble of yellow corrugated shed-siding bound by rough boards in Palomino forms a dynamic pattern of ridges and thrusts throughout its packed solidity, and constitutes as well one of Butterfield’s rare incorporations of color.

All eight works in this traveling exhibition (organized by Los Angeles’ Arco Center for Visual Art) demonstrate a more subtly creative use of materials than did Butterfield’s previous horses. The linear and plank textures have a graphic quality, as if they were gestural drawings or broadly brushed paintings made three-dimensional. But beyond technique, the sculptures act as more than vehicles for formal innovation. In her earlier horses of mud and sticks Butterfield maintained a consistency between the subject—which served as a sign of nature rather than as a reference to military, racing, or farm-animal prowess—and the natural materials it was made of. In comparison, the chaotic textures of the used industrial debris seen here present a jarring contradiction between the benign figure of the standing or lying animal and the broken, violent appearance of its materials. The horse becomes a metaphor for the larger theme of the violence done to nature on a macrocosmic scope, by industrializing it, messing it up, turning it into waste materials. Because of this underlying philosophical commentary in Butterfield’s work, her horses not only bear a commanding sculptural presence, but are affecting on a spiritual level as well.

Suzaan Boettger