Deborah Butterfield was born the same day in 1949 as the 75th running of the Kentucky Derby. When she was a little girl her friends would make fun of her because all she ever drew was pictures of horses. When she went to college and studied art she worked as a stable girl in exchange for room and board. And for Butterfield, it’s been horses, horses, horses ever since. But an exhibition of her equine sculpture at Grounds For Sculpture in Hamilton Township makes clear these are horses with a difference.
The herd of Butterfield’s “Noble Steeds” that are the star attraction of the exhibit have something important to say about art and horses alike. On one level, the assembled sculpture serves as serious, finely crafted abstraction; works that are notable for their structural calligraphy and carefully arranged volumes, built using her own version of three-dimensional linear form. Even so, the assembled sculpture is sufficiently lifelike to feel like, if not exactly look like, the real thing.
Using driftwood, tree branches, industrial materials, and anything else that captures her artistic fancy, she translates commonplace objects into serious, aesthetically demanding cast-bronze and assembled steel works of art that function happily as space, line, and complex pattern without ever sacrificing content. These grazing, resting, and standing creatures easily capture the essence of their subject and are almost as close as you can get without a whinny or a neigh.
According to curator Ellen Landis, who organized the exhibition, they even cast their virtual-horse spell on visiting experts despite their abstracted structure and unexpected materials. “We had visitors from Kentucky, horse people,” she says. “They told me that the horses felt so lifelike that they wanted to come in with an apple and a carrot.”
Artists have been making horses, for better and for worse, ever since the days of cave painting. In the hands of another, a career devoted to art about horses could easily turn into a cliche. But Butterfield’s life-sized works and their smaller cousins — cast from industrial leftovers and other three-dimensional odds and ends — give new meaning to the old saw, “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.”
“It’s not a subject one thinks of as high art but she makes it her own,” says Landis, explaining that in some instinctive manner Butterfield transforms her unlikely array of materials into something almost lifelike. “She uses color as she finds it but she makes it work. I’ve never seen a turquoise horse, but this one feels just right. It’s not the horse. It’s the nature of the horse. . . it’s the emotive connection that makes it seem real. You know you’re in horse country.”
The work in question, “Maluhia,” with turquoise flanks and a ruddy torso, appears to be assembled from bits and pieces of painted metals culled from wrecked trucks, cars, and other metal remnants. Nevertheless there is little question that you are looking at a horse. Like the folks from Kentucky, you may well feel inclined to bring on the carrots and apples.
Landis points out that the abstracted constructions are designed to create a graphic dialog with the viewer. Shape, form, and empty spaces function as telling guides to the essence of their subject.
“They are not representational but just as powerful,” says Landis. “Probably because form is suggested. And what she leaves out is as important as what she puts in. The negative spaces form a connection with the audience and the viewer ends up completing the work.”
The three-dimensional version of connecting the dots is readily apparent in “Two,” a small “sketch,” rendered in what appears to be a single line using heavy wire. While the minimal construction works, visually, in the manner of a quick sketch, much smaller than most of the artist’s work and providing very little information, it’s all there. Despite its modest size and reductive nature there is, once again, no question that one is looking at a horse.
“They’re not realistic yet very realistic at the same time,” says Landis, “the arch of the neck, the position of the head — all the emotion converges through stance.”
In her artist’s statement Butterfield describes her horses’ gestures as “really quite quiet,” explaining that this work is more about gesture and content. What makes them work so well is that she says she sets out to capture the state of mind or of being at a given instant.
A good way to connect with these noble steeds is to first watch the video that accompanies the display. It provides an introduction to the artist, her thoughts about her subject, and a graphic explanation of an incredibly complex and demanding ancient process for making art. Butterfield explains something of what drives her and, in the process, helps us understand how her work functions as well as it does. We learn the many steps involved in the production of these works — a long list of demanding artistic feats that includes perfect documentation, taking the sculpture apart, converting the parts into individual molds, which are then cast in the foundry with molten metal, and then, rebuilding.
The final step is patination, a chemical process that creates a variety of oxidized color that transforms the uniform metal surface of the bronze into one resembling the original materials — wood, driftwood, or the scraps from which they were made. Much of that work is done by Butterfield in a painterly fashion. And the veracity of the results is hard to believe. In the exhibition the driftwood, for example, looks as if it had been recently gathered at the shore.
While Butterfield’s work involves new challenges and innovation, she makes it using a process with a long past. Metal casting began in India around 3500 BC. The lost-wax process, which is used for some of these works, was known to the Incas, the Aztecs, and the Maya well before the first Europeans arrived.
Visitors can try their hands at Butterfield’s craft at a complementary display featuring things to touch and informative and instructive labels. Boxes of twigs, metal odds and ends, and familiar objects cast in bronze help the viewer make material connections with the featured art and understand the complex demands of process in this unusual body of work.
For Butterfield, it’s still horses, horses, horses. When she is not in her studio making her own version of a noble steed she is riding or caring for one of her three horses in Montana or Hawaii, depending on the season. She says she rides every day. And she is actively involved in dressage (the art of exhibition riding in which the horse makes complex and demanding maneuvers controlled by subtle movements of the rider), an undertaking the artist says exemplifies for her the importance of communication when working with an animal.
Butterfield was born in San Diego, California. She has an MFA from the University of California, Davis (1973). Her work is included in the collections of the Mennello Museum of American Art, Orlando, FL; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth, TX, among others. She has taught sculpture at Montana State University, Bozeman. She is married to the artist John Buck, an Iowa native who is a sculptor-printmaker. They have two sons.
Butterfield started out her career using mud and twigs as her materials but they became a maintenance and archival problem. Since the late 1990s, she has cast her horses in bronze, starting with models made of wood and organic materials. All of her horses are mares, which she says she regards as symbolic self-portraits. She has described her profound relationship with her subject as a metaphorical substitute for herself. She explains it as a way of doing a self-portrait one step removed from the specificity of Deborah Butterfield.
Fall/Winter Exhibition, Grounds For Sculpture, 18 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton. Through Sunday, January 2. “Noble Steeds” featuring the work of Deborah Butterfield and “The Lopez Family Santeros (Carvers of Saints)” displays sculpture and wooden reliefs by Felix, Joseph, and Krissa Lopez. The International Sculpture Center’s 2011 Outstanding Student Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture Awards is also on view. New works in the park include works by Larry Bell, Mark Fredenburg, Gordon Gund, and Khang Pham-New. 609-586-0616 or www.groundsforsculpture.org.