Los Angeles

Eugenia Butler

Ben Maltz Gallery, Otis College of Art & Design

An artist who operated in the same late-’60s circles as Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, and Lawrence Weiner and whose work was included in early exhibitions of Conceptual and post-Minimalist art such as “Electric Art” at UCLA (1969), “Prospect 69” at the Kunsthalle Du¨sseldorf, and “Concept Art” at the San Francisco Art Institute (1970), Eugenia Butler has been as pioneering as any practitioner in her field. Yet as curator Anne Ayres notes in this exhibition’s catalogue, history has granted Butler less than her due. In a move toward a remedy, Ayres, building on the research and cataloguing efforts of Los Angeles–based critic and historian M.A. Greenstein, brought together fifty-eight works as well as assorted ephemera and documents to survey over thirty-five years of Butler’s production.

Butler’s early text-based works seem to epitomize the notion—now so fundamental as to be almost a cliché—of art as idea detached from sensual or retinal experience. Subtly emphasizing or calling attention to various phenomena was standard modus operandi for Conceptual, post-Minimalist, and Light and Space artists; Butler’s short descriptive phrases or bits of text on paper, metal plates, and wall labels suggest the presence of phenomena that simply did not exist. Works like Negative Space Hole, 1967, Light Cloud Piece, 1967–68, and Static Electricity Piece, 1967–68, comprising only the words that make up their titles, were often described as “invisible sculptures.” Though these early pieces might appear to privilege mind over body or content over form, they’re in fact rooted in the same attempt to fuse gut- and brain-centered experience that inspired many of Butler’s contemporaries. As your mind’s eye adds a layer to your view of the space around you, Butler’s “perceptual/conceptual fields” become almost palpable. When you read Butler’s phrases you simply feel, see, and think differently in the space.

Many of Butler’s other works are in fact quite actual, retinal, and physical—assisted or altered readymades; three-dimensional geometric wall reliefs that exploit illusion in two dimensions—emphasizing formal, material, and optical play while still dealing in idea, suggestion, and implication. Consider Electric Cord Piece, 1967 (remade 2003), in which a doubly male electrical cord snakes across the floor to join two female outlets, and My Last Museum Piece (Flies to Honey), a 2003 reconfiguration of a 1969 project that consists of a seven-foot-diameter inflated clear plastic ball whose inside has been smeared with honey and hosts a swarm of tiny flies feeding from its gooey walls. These are works that invade our space, provoke bodily reactions, and invite a whole range of associations. They catch your eye, hit you in the gut, and leave you scratching your head. Butler makes clear that hers has been an agenda not of narrowing experience by privileging one aspect or approach but rather of advocating a broad, multivalent engagement.

Christopher Miles