Michael Buthe

Galerie Schurr

The work of Michael Buthe is inseparably connected to Africa and the Middle East. In the course of his many trips to these parts of the world, their cultures—especially those of North Africa—have become very much a part of Buthe’s life. After Cologne, Marrakesh is his second home. From these various influences he creates a milieu of private signs and ciphers in his fetishlike objects and large-scale environments, which can serve simultaneously as art and as living space for the artist. The concept of “individual mythology,” formulated by Harald Szeemann on the occasion of Documenta 5, was already being applied to his work by 1972 and describes this close connection between his art and his life. Most of the large-scale pieces in this exhibition, which covers the period from 1974 to 1986, come from larger contexts, once having been components of environmental installations.

Buthe’s sumptuous world of colors, which on close inspection turns out to be largely restricted to the colors red, blue, and gold, is always richly faceted, opalescent, and surprisingly fresh in its love of the ornamental. In our technology-dominated age, which has paid for its rationality and belief in progress by the loss of myth, his work is full of fascination. Buthe’s preoccupation with sun myths, which embrace life and death equally, finds expression in Engel (Angel, 1982), a many-layered wall-size work on canvas with a tapestrylike ornamental border. Here, as in an earlier installation, there is a floating blue figure (this time with blue-violet wings) on a luminous red ground. Engel is an example of Buthe’s work as “individual mythology” in the strictest sense—in contrast to Joseph Beuys, for instance, who relies on the repeatable recognition of signs within a relatively fixed context as a way of moving from a private to a universal language. On the whole, Buthe intends his symbolism to remain obscure. Gold laurel leaves are collaged onto the picture surface, appearing to fall from the wings of the ascending angel. They are the color of the sun and, at the same time, recall both the feathers Buthe likes to use to symbolize masculinity and the almond shapes that recur so frequently in his drawings and paintings.

Buthe’s many-layered symbolism is embedded not so much in the forms he creates on the surface as in his use of found objects. Gold and silver foil are combined with archaic-seeming, utilitarian objects—an old broom or postcards, for instance—and overlaid with paint and wax. Cheap or used objects are juxtaposed with valuable materials, which ennoble them and give them new meanings and qualities. However, unlike the Surrealists, Buthe does not choose and arrange his found materials by chance. They have been deliberately selected for and set into a specific context, which explains the fetishistic character of his small-format pictures and objects. In a piece from the series “Tausendundeine Nacht” (1,001 Nights, 1978), for instance, he has attached kernels of rice, buttons, tangled yarn, and other found materials to a photographic collage (which includes a publicity poster for Island in the Sun, a late ’50s movie about interracial romance in the British West Indies), all under a thick layer of wax. The quality expressed by these objects in no small measure results from the low-level disgust these stuck-together materials arouse in us, while the connection to the underlying images remains ambiguous. Far from dreaming some oriental fairytale here, Buthe demonstrates an antiesthetic posture that is clearly indebted to the Western context of art. His phantasmic world is no romantic flight from reality but rather celebrates an un-European sensuality and a world-oriented (though private) vision.

Anne Krauter

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.