It should be no surprise that in Montana, even in Bozeman, there’s no shortage of artists painting, drawing, sculpting and photographing horses. Which is a delight for me, engaged as I am in such a project myself (posts here and here). That gives me a keen interest in how others have responded to the subject, and enhances my appreciation of their work.
So it’s shocking to me that, before yesterday, I hadn’t thought for a long time about Deborah Butterfield. Two years ago I first saw her horse sculptures at the Yellowstone Art Museum; they had the force of revelation. I remember walking into the room and having to sit down (on a fortunately placed bench) to gaze at the horse there, one of her newer ones in patina’d bronze cast from driftwood. Without any knowledge of Butterfield, her technique, or the subject, my overwhelming impression was that this was a person who understood horses. What they are inside, and how they are put together, in both a physical and a metaphorical way.
Butterfield’s work suffers more than most from being crammed into a web image, of which examples can be seen at gallery web sites (Greg Kucera and Paule Anglim) and several museums, including the Delaware Art Museum with it’s earlier piece in scrap metal. A bit more information is at the Madison (a former stomping ground of my own) Museum of Contemporary Art (site of her first solo exhibition) and Wikipedia, and some history and reviews can be found here.
Butterfield happens to live part time in Bozeman, though I haven’t yet met her. For that reason alone, I feel compelled to deal with her work, to consider what it says to me, and to think of my own work in some relation to that. No, I’m not in any hurry to evaluate and position. Now that I’ve “rediscovered” her horses, I look forward to working in a richer and more stimulating context. I do think we have some similar concerns, for example in how the horse is a creature of parts. She can represent that through the components she selects to assemble in her sculptures; I do it most often by not showing a whole horse, selecting parts in an arrangement I find appealing.
Perhaps the most surprising and intriguing idea that I came across is in my flurry of research in writing this post is Butterfield’s explicit approach to horses as self-portraits. As quoted on the Madison site: “I first used the horse images as a metaphorical substitute for myself–it was a way of doing a self-portrait one step removed from the specificity of Deborah Butterfield.” I suspect this inhabiting of the work may be, in part, what lends it such power.
The notion that an artist’s work represents a portrait of herself, in the general sense that it reflects her character and approach to the world, is a commonplace one. It seems much deeper to me to mentally place oneself in the subject, whether it be a horse, a tree, a mountain, a plum, a house, … I confess I have never thought in quite this way, though a feeling of affinity with the subject is often there. Have you? Or imagined your subject as having some equally intimate, though different connection to yourself? Does that approach have any appeal to you?