New York

Tom Butter

Curt Marcus Gallery

In his recent show, Tom Butter presented eight works described as kinetic sculptures. But their kinesis was amusingly elusive. Only one actually seemed to earn the name: Night Train (all works 1997), a large steel wheel suspended by a perpendicular column sheathed in fiberglass, revolved just perceptibly.

A light touch, however, set the piece into smooth, sure rotation, and it turned out that all but two pieces, Two States and Dive, could be activated by a bit of manipulation (though some had such a limited range that they seemed barely to jiggle). Observatory, for instance, consists of a rounded, white fiberglass cylinder balanced like a telescope atop the point of a steel rod sheathed in an envelope of two pink rhomboidal forms so that it can turn slowly and gracefully on its axis, able to swing up, down, and sideways.

The visual austerity of Butter’s sculpture coexists with a strong element of playfulness. The Cat in the Hat is a bisected pillar of yellow fiberglass; the top and bottom halves each have a curving rim so that the whole suggests two top hats stacked brim to brim. The upper half rotates on ball bearings. The sculpture’s long, lanky form and hat shapes recall an impressionistic abstraction of the lanky hero of Dr. Seuss’ book; the Rube Goldberg–style fantasies of that author seem dear to Butter as well. And yet the amusing reference is merely a point of departure, for Butter’s primary concern is with a conflict of opposing forces, gravity and elevation versus inertia and kinesis.

Big Wheel also reflects Butter’s interest in childhood play. A large, thin disk of translucent pink fiberglass is mounted on an axle supported by armatures; just over six feet tall, the construct suggests a delusionary mixture of Ferris wheel, erector set, and half-sucked pink lollipop. At the same time the disk's jagged edges recall the sawmill blades that used to be stock terror devices in silent-film suspense serials. Indeed, the works do concern themselves with suspense—not in terms of narrative, but physics.

The wall reliefs on view, though graced by Butter’s legerdemain, were more sober and academic. Light/Shade examines its eponymous properties by means of formal analogies: light is represented by a squiggly piece of metal, shade by a metal box; the two objects, set apart by a divider, exist in cantilevered balance. The pleasure here is not in physical analogies, but in the sculptor’s graceful, imaginative volumetric metaphors for intangibles.

The stillness of Butter’s “kinetic” works remains a lingering puzzle. Has the artist created these immobile movables to examine the dynamic tension that exists between momentum and inertia, action and nonaction (and thus, by extension, to engage in philosophical speculation)? Or do they simply need playmates? Refusing to answer definitively, Butter’s works are quietly, cerebrally moving.

Justin Spring