Deborah Butterfield’s sculptures are not like the sculptures of the civilized and perfectly groomed horses standing beneath important men that adorn public places. They’re just themselves, seemingly contemplating their own existence with a serenity that belies their power. At Zolla Lieberman Gallery most of them gently stand while one lays prone, each comfortable with their companion sculptures in the pack (and also comfortable with us, the viewer) but somehow indifferent to their presence; a reflection on their individuality. The arrangement of the sculptures in the gallery becomes more than the sum of the parts, comparable to the scroll of the Tale of Genji, where the placement of figures creates abstract space within space.
In horse packs the alpha horse is typically a mare, a significant fact in my opinion for Butterfield who started her career making works she considered feminist in nature. In a formal sense these recent horses are more internal than her past work. They get to the bone and sinew of the animal; appropriately since these sculptures are personifications of the artist herself, increasingly free from art-world dogma.
This isn’t to say Butterfield’s work is without historical precedents. They are reminiscent of the stylized and glazed Tang Dynasty horse sculptures or Degas’ bronze horses. But Degas’ small sculptures were about movement, while Butterfield’s are almost eerily still. Any movement in Butterfield’s horses is baroque in nature in the sense that the naturalist sweeps and curves of the branches are imported into mass. This mass and volume (and sheer scale) draw us into a visual experience that transcends the mere representation of a horse. Instead, the work becomes a sort of horsey-archetype; a mythological figure that Jung associated with primal, instinctive drives and the personification of human-psyche (which is why horses have visions and often speak in the mythologies of nearly all cultures, even our popular one). As an archetype the horse is also associated with the feminine, as Jung pointed out in The Practical Use of Dream Analysis: “the ‘horse’ is an equivalent of ‘mother’ with a slight shift of meaning.” In this way Butterfield acutely probes the depths of femininity and transcends style.
The sculptures also have infinite viewing angles, each one revealing a new side of the branch-bones, as if studying a false but believable equine anatomy. These branches are not ornamentation; each serves a structural purpose and in most of the sculptures no more are used than necessary. It could be argued that Butterfield paradoxically combines elements of Baroque and post-minimalist sculpture.
This show presents five slightly larger than life-size horses and several smaller ones. They’re cast in bronze, patinated to resemble the weathered and sun-bleached branches from which she makes them. After constructed the branches are disassembled, cast individually and in the process destroyed, and then the bronze pieces welded together. At her ranch and studio in Montana one imagines a veritable bone yard of rough wood from which to choose. Butterfield’s is a process of piecing together these bones to form an object that in a different but not unbelievable reality might have existed without human intervention, simply emerging that way from a forest. In Bristlecone, the horse carries burls and pine cones attached to the gnarly branch-bones from which it’s made, as if these were detritus picked up after passing through a thicket.
My only complaint is we don’t get to experience the materiality of the original wood constructions firsthand. This disappointment is dissipated by a very effective double illusion: these sculptures are illusions of horses using sun-bleached branches, and also the illusion of these sun bleached branches in bronze. A sculpture within a sculpture.
Butterfield has in the past made her horses from salvaged scrap metal and car parts – a suggestion perhaps that our automobiles are the cast-off ghosts of these majestic creatures. This isn’t some luddite claim to the nobilities of a more primitive existence. These horses are wild and exist outside our petty human troubles. Something about this notion is in part what’s made Butterfield’s horses interesting for over thirty years: they defy contemporaneity while at the same time embracing it. Or if one associates contemporaneity with certain qualities of contemporary art, then maybe Butterfield moves beyond it.
The show conjures a majesty we can’t quite place, the decidedly “non-royal” kind that’s more like the original Latin root of the word meaning something akin to “greatness.” A horse has a highly developed sense of balance, always aware of the location of every part of its body, perfectly placed in space without effort. It’s as if its every gesture is a lyrical poem. The same could be said for these sculptures, which capture that grace, balance and equipoise with their own original finesse.
By: Matthew Metzger
Matthew Metzger is an artist, designer and furniture maker based in Cincinnati. His paintings are represented locally by Miller Gallery, and his furniture by Voltage, as well as other galleries and design showrooms nationally. His website is www.metzgerfinearts.com.