New York

Deborah Butterfield

For millennia the horse has been a standard, idolized fixture, in art as in life. “Horse country” is the place where the rich discover that there is a passion deeper than the passion for money. The horse is sexually symbolic, an expression of wild erotic power, as in D. H. Lawrence’s short story “St. Mawr.” It is often the first, and last, serious love of young girls. Deborah Butterfield has a young girl’s passion for horses, no doubt highly preferable to human beings, who are too complicated. The question is, Why are her horses so broken (and I don’t mean broken in)? The seven sculptures in this exhibition are the metallic ruins of horseflesh as well as abstract images of primitive horses. Their ancestor is the pale horse that Death rode in Albert Pinkham Ryder’s painting The Race Track, 1890–1910. They appear all the more archaic by being rendered in rotting, rusting metal—the “posthistoric” to render the prehistoric. Since 1978–79 Butterfield has moved back and forth between the vital materials of earth and sticks and the dead materials of industrial debris to create her horse sculptures. Here, the materials are discarded scraps of industrial metal—all the more dead for having outlived their use, much as the horse has in modern society—and the result is devastating: death with no promise of resurrection. Only the remembered horses of myth survive, outliving the human beings who depict them in the caves of consciousness.

Technically, Butterfield has undone John Chamberlain—reversed his process, as it were. Where Chamberlain increasingly moved his cast-off industrial metal toward contourless abstract gesture meant to signify pure spirit, Butterfield, by restoring relatively firm figural contour, makes the metal serve a descriptive purpose, however obliquely or symbolically. But what is being described is a mirage, so that the result seems as much a hallucinatory fantasy as an external form, hovering on the borderline between consciousness and the unconscious. Butterfield’s metal signifies neither pure narrative nor pure spirit, but remains mutely in between.

One can interpret the metal as the skeleton of the dead horse, but that is to miss the point—that it’s a ghost, an absent horse. Although Butterfield gives five of the seven horses the upright stance of living horses, their aliveness is in fact an illusion, for she uses symbolic and material presence to create a sense of absence. Her horses are what Felix Guattari calls “power signs” rather than referents to reality. Better yet, they are totems of the invisible yet omnipresent power of death; having been consumed by death, they take on its power. In a sense, Chamberlain is optimistic where Butterfield is pessimistic. He wants to resurrect rejected, worn-out, used, and abused material; she wants to bring out the death in it, to carry its already obvious look of death to the point where it seems mysterious and even incomprehensible. She apprehends the element of death that is inherent in her cast-off material and deepens it by casting it in the now obsolete form of the horse, which today is merely a memory of its former glory and usefulness—in effect, dead. In this, she shows that she has no illusions, which is a hard thing to achieve in art, whose medium is illusion.

Donald Kuspit