Deborah Butterfield | Reviews

June 9, 2011
The Seattle Times

Review: Deborah Butterfield's contemplative horses at Greg Kucera
by Gayle Clemens

ART REVIEW Friday, July 22, 2005
Butterfield's horses exude her unbridled love for the equine By Judy Wagonfeld
From The Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Deborah Butterfield is obsessed with horses.When away from her Montana ranch, she imagines them in cinematic perspective, inflated by memory. Upon returning home, their actual size always surprises her.

We've all experienced this phenomenon about people or places we treasure. And it's this essence -- an epic love, awe and respect that Butterfield portrays. Unbridled from specific roles, her mares and stallions bear humble, serene demeanors.

It is impossible to enter Butterfield's exhibit at Greg Kucera Gallery without being wowed. You almost trip over "Habitat," a 10-foot-long horse sprawled at the door. Muscles as relaxed as a human's after yoga, he sinks into the ground. Towering behind, "Hermit" and "Touchstone" stand hands higher than real horses. Seemingly wrought of broken branches and crusts of bark, they look precarious. But, as in trompe l'oeil paintings, appearances trick the eye. Sturdily cast in bronze, they will last for ages, modern day iron and Trojan horses that inhabit worldwide museums, public spaces and private grounds.

Butterfield developed her faux-wood approach at the Walla Walla Foundry in Eastern Washington because her early stick-and-mud horses had deteriorated -- distressing art collectors. The wood shrank, wires loosened, dirt disintegrated and bugs attacked. Tiring of a secondary "veterinary art restorer" career, she sought permanence for her ephemeral sculptures. In the labor-intensive solution she documents and disassembles her wood horses, makes a mold for every stick, burns out the wood and pours in molten bronze. After reassembly, patinas restore nature's hues.

In a simpler process, Butterfield welds steeds from industrial and farm discards. "Rosa" (standing) and "Redhead" (lying) of weathered orange steel appear frail and vulnerable; remnants paying homage to pre-industrialization's hero. In colt-size versions, Butterfield switches allegiance, honoring the Tang Dynasty's revered and miniaturized horses.

Regardless of material or size, Butterfield's loose, lyrical lines suggest X-ray views of sleek equine bodies. Coaxing slabs of textured bark, she crafts bulky haunches. Gnarly twigs drape as tails. Tangled roots meander like internal organs. Twisted metal implies a head. Arched steel or branches fashion curving necks, bellies and backs. Outsized legs somehow look right. Positive and negative spaces play off each other like the gestural brush strokes of Susan Rothenberg's horses.

It's easy to connect with these horses. From cave drawings to the present, we know them as friends and helpers. Symbols in American myth, they're lionized in art. Racehorses, broncos, wild mustangs, carriage and work horses rear up, prance, gallop, jump or transport riders. In contrast, this artist's noble horses stand or lie untethered, steeped in blissful primal spirits.

Butterfield began making horses 30 years ago as self-portraits expressing feminist and anti-war concerns. Encouraged by mentor Manual Neri (who, in her mind, had a lock on the female form she preferred to use), she's pursued the motif. Over time, gender and politics mattered less, trumped by passion for the horse itself.

Only a person intimately connected to horses could generate Butterfield's range of subtlety. She's a maestro reinterpreting a symphony, a medic with a sixth sense for diagnosis -- abilities spawned from creativity, discipline and devotion. These same traits propelled her to levels of black belt in karate and grand prix in dressage.

It's this precision that keeps us as intrigued with her art as she is with horses. As President Reagan once said, "There's nothing better for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse." In this case, that applies even to those made of metal and bronze. In poetic lyricism, Deborah Butterfield's extraordinary sculpted horses rank with the Australian masterpiece "The Man From Snowy River." Like that sweeping epic of love, life and horses, their primal compelling presence gets under your skin.

Paradoxes of power and vulnerability, these huge beasts loom humbly in Greg Kucera Gallery. Appearing patched from bark, branches and twigs, they seem in danger of collapse. But all is not what it seems. Fragility obscures inner strength. Ambiguity hides reality. And just as the industrial revolution swapped a living, breathing animal for the Iron Horse, Butterfield metamorphoses sticks into bronze.
Without a blueprint, Butterfield coaxes and ties forest fall into divine equine elegance. Documenting and disassembling, she casts each segment, burning out the core and pouring in molten bronze. After reconstructing the horse's body, patinas restore the original wood's earthy palettes.

The illusion stuns viewers. Beyond that, Butterfield's artistry of form energizes this show's eight bronzes and two colorful, found metal assemblages, sending a visceral hit. An arched spine, cocked head, hip sway or tail swoosh conveys elusive gestural nuances she garners while raising horses and training them in dressage.

Despite Butterfield's 30-year focus on horses, each bears a unique persona established through degrees of openness, chaotic versus sleek curvilinear lines, and size. While the smaller 3- to 4-foot versions pay homage to ancient Chinese miniature sculptures, the 7-foot Goliaths hover like domesticated, blissful Mother Earths awaiting instruction.

As in life, the most protected often lie at risk, their vulnerability as exposed and penetrable as Butterfield's lattice shelled creatures. Metaphorically, the horses represent her, as well as the female species; nobility woven from fragile pasts and primed exquisitely for treasured dreams.

- Judy Wagonfeld