Deborah Butterfield

The world of the haunch, hoof, and mane seems largely divorced from the mainstream of modern existence, has, in fact, become a nostalgic trope—the stuff of revery and myth. As a focus in modern art, horses have really been right at the heart of only two artist’s careers: Marino Marini’s and Deborah Butterfield’s. Not coincidentally, the work of both of these sculptors reflects the beauty and rhythmic power of the animal world—its resplendence and corporeality, its stoic splendor and grace.

From her home and studio in Bozeman, Montana, Butterfield continues to investigate these representations, creating in the eight pieces shown here curiously peaceful, domesticated objects. Butterfield’s horses are docile and well-behaved, tame, self-contained grazers, not strident wild beasts symbolizing Romantic notions of freedom. Supple and noble, they become paragons of nature, arcadian creatures who enjoy a synthesis with a world no longer accessible to us—one that we can only wistfully witness when it is made manifest in these beautiful animals. Butterfield’s most extraordinary skill, of course, is her capacity to convince her viewers of the total palpability of these horses, though she constructs them out of no more than bits and pieces of found metal. Old rusted buckets, fuel tins, pipes, gutters. signs, gas tanks, chunks of siding, etc., are bent and welded together, metamorphosed into the contours of striding flank and swelling belly. Butterfield’s source material itself bespeaks Big Sky Country: forgotten and discarded bits of metallic flotsam that originally intruded onto sylvan plains are now rehabilitated as art.

In Willy, 1992, Butterfield focuses on orangish bits of twisted steel. Slightly over life-size, it is a tour de force of metallic flourishes, surprisingly spare and restrained in its materials. Evoking a feeling of presence with great economy, this spare lattice of metal carries a metaphoric weight far beyond what its mass suggests. Butter-field’s consummate understanding of equine anatomy and behavior lends great authority to her subject: the slightest gestures of steel are transformed into rump, neck, and sinew. Joan, 1992, one of the two pieces in this exhibition to show a reclining horse, is made from more solid stuff, collaged out of larger pieces of rusting steel that accumulate in a construct of great delicacy and elegance. This modest visual poetry is finally in harmony with the expressive content of the pieces themselves—Butterfield’s clear affection for and identification with her subject matter transcends any likelihood that she is seriously critiquing the view of these creatures as nature’s charms, as animals that achieve a transcendent and inevitable peace. There is something oddly heartrending in this response, and even when one might question the range of its truth, it is both intriguing and not surprising to see horses made to function once again as vehicles for human needs and desires.

James Yood