Unless you are heartless ghoul, the unabashedly ribald energy rippling throughout Kathy Butterly’s crumpled, bulging, oddly twisted, and pouting ceramic vessels should bring a smile to your face. And if you are not afraid of using muscles that will surely make your cheeks ache, I recommend that you spend as long as you can at the exhibition, Kathy Butterly: Thought Presence, at James Cohan (September 6 – October 20, 2018), her first with this gallery.
In the age of 40-character electronic announcements and Instagram, Butterly has slowed looking down to a snail’s pace. And she has done it with works that each of us could easily hold in our hands, imparting a very private, even intimate experience. At the same time, if you are a longtime fan of Butterly’s work, as I am, you will notice that many of the recent pieces are bigger and slightly bulkier than ones you have seen before, and the surface textures are far more varied.
There is so much going on with these 24 modest-sized works — all of which are displayed on four large, table-like platforms in the gallery’s two spaces — that you will likely not see everything Butterly so deftly does, because you will be too busy marveling at the obvious. Perhaps you may even decide that spending time with a handful of the works, none of which is taller than 11 inches (and many of which are less than six inches high), will be enough. Or, if you are like me, you will go back to the show and zoom in on your favorite pieces and hope no one will notice as you revel in a work’s frank immodesty.
Butterly, whose mastery of ceramics is unrivaled, is our youngest modern master.
What is striking about her devotion to craft — from multiple firings to every kind of glaze and texture, to the placement of minute and delicate details — is that everything she does feels absolutely necessary to the work. Look inside the hollows of the works, at the rivulets running down the sides, or the puddles collected in a declivity, or the multiple pinched, folded, and puckered forms, and you begin to get a sense of the range of effects Butterly is capable of incorporating into any of her pieces. A virtuoso of the distorted form, her work brings to mind Frank Lloyd Wright’s belief that “form and function are one,” but with a delicious twist.
I am thinking of Pablo Picasso’s “Woman in a Straw Hat” (1936). In that carnal painting, Picasso merges a woman’s head (two eyes, nose, and mouth) and body (breasts, vagina, and ass) with a vase on a pedestal. Butterly does something similar, but from a woman’s point of view, which is a game changer. Whereas Picasso’s coolly distorted representation is disturbing, Butterly’s misshapen vessels joyfully celebrate their collapsed, slumping, and toppled forms. What they all convey is a state of being wonderfully unembarrassed about their body shapes.
While critics, myself included, have cited her connection to the great ceramic artists — from George Ohr, who called himself the “Mad Potter of Biloxi,” to Ken Price and Robert Arneson, who was her teacher — I think it is more fruitful to see her work in a larger context. The other reason why I mention Picasso’s “Woman in a Straw Hat” is because Butterly restages the well-known trope that posits that a woman’s body is like a vessel and vice versa, with immense wit and generosity of feeling.
In addition to the artists I have mentioned, Butterly seems to have absorbed a lot from the contortion and exaggeration of cartoons; pre-CGI science fiction films, with their oozing, dripping sets and monsters; and Japanese toy robots. And this is just a small part of the associations a Butterly sculpture will call to mind, which might also include the fleshy nudes of Peter Paul Rubens or a brightly colored, shiny plastic handbag in a store window, melted from hours of sitting in the sun.
In “Crown” (2018), there is a round, white craquelure form atop a smooth, creamy lump, with a splotch of red hanging off the side of an indented lip, where Butterly seems to have squeezed the unfired form before placing it in the kiln. “Yellow Glow (2018) looks as if some kind of fungal mold has invaded the ceramic’s yellow skin. Rivulets of green goop run down the sides of “Distraction” (2018), a wide-mouthed, vessel-like form that seems to be collapsing in on itself.
In “Black Plaid” (2018), two open handles stick out from the form at right angles, like oversized ears, while in “Whirld” (2018), the handles hang down like the droopy ears of a basset hound. Meanwhile, the insides of the works are as interesting as the outside. By allowing the pieces to seem deliberately awkward, like an infant learning to walk, Butterly undoes the model of aesthetic perfection that has been one of ceramic’s burdens. More to the point, she takes the formal innovations of Ohr to a fresh place.
The other thing that Butterly does is seamlessly mix together abstract form with anthropomorphic suggestibility. “Color Safe” (2018) reminded me of the delightfully annoying (or annoyingly delightful) Minions that first appeared in the film, Despicable Me (2010). While Butterly’s forms are wildly allusive, with the female body humming at the center of our scrutiny, it seems to me that by refusing the commonplace option of citation, especially of well-known fictional characters littering Pop culture, she rejects the view that fabricating an original copy is the best we can do in this mechanized, digital world.
Despite their labor-intensiveness, and the many states that they pass through before they are completed, what radiates throughout the objects in the exhibition is the evident pleasure that Butterly takes in making them. Their infectious joy is a high point in this dismal world.
Aren’t we getting tired of art entrepreneurs showing off how much money can be spent to achieve the latest version of surface perfection? Crafted without legions of doting assistants, Butterly’s modest-sized, handmade pieces are truly radical statements. She deserves to have a vitrine of her ceramics permanently installed in a New York museum — be it the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, or the Museum of Modern Art. Which one will be the first to get it right?
Kathy Butterly: Thought Presence continues at James Cohan (533 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 20.