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September 14 - October 28, 2006 at L.A. Louver Gallery, Venice

by Marlena Donohu

"Untitled 3080.1," 2006,
cast bronze, 42 x 53 x 16".

"Untitled 3063.1", 2006, cast
bronze, 93 x 109 x 48".

"Untitled 3092.1", 2006, cast
bronze, 41 1/2 x 53 x 13".


"Untitled (DBut06-12)", 2006,
found steel, welded, 48 x 66 x 16".

The “Chinese Horse” was created with natural pigments mixed with animal fat and, historians surmise, painted not with a brush but with powdered color delivered from a longish reed.  Whoever made her used the slight swell of the natural rock to emphasize her potentially pendulous belly, linking two- and three-dimensional communication in ways so sophisticated that it still shocks.  We may never know exactly her meaning, purpose, or even if she is indeed a mare--mostly she is iconic “horseness.”  Historians describe her as the “Chinese Horse” because she reminded them of sophisticated Tang horses and the master draftsmen who limned them for Asian Emperors thousands of years later.  In this prehistoric “Chinese Horse” from Lascaux created around 15,000 BC every line tells much, and the link between maker and subject is intense.

Deborah Butterfield’s horses have always called to mind that horse at Lascaux.  First in the way that two-dimensional gesture and three-dimensional form are finely yoked to make a symbolic and plastic argument that is at once completely open-ended (you never for a moment think she is talking to us just about horses or what they look like), yet precise and prescient.  Then there is the manner in which Butterfield knows her subject and knows what it can say beyond the obvious.

Butterfield’s horses manage to call up with this same economic, resonant draftsmanship (in this case not drawn but made in space from spare, strategic masses and voids) the artist's horses and their antecedents--- ancient, present, imagined, real, allusions to them, their relation to humans and the often contradictory symbolic legacy they hold.  Butterfield’s horses channel and interpolate in so many interesting ways ideas of fecundity (found not just in prehistoric caves, but in Freud and in the work of the Surrealists), of conquest and war, of uncharted discovery and pioneering, of the painted “primitive,” of bourgeois luxury, princely polo.  All of this text and subtext, added to the immense respect this artist feels for her subject (as the cave painter must have), runs through the hunks of wood, skeins of twigs, wire, bric-a-brac, real or cast in bronze.

These stalwart and iconic horses are like messengers able to interface between the world of scurrying humans and capricious, brutal, unknowable nature.  Always without riders. they call to mind the mostly apocryphal story of how the Aztec king Moctezuma, seeing Spanish cavalry in a land without the horse, surrendered summarily, thinking mounted invaders were heavenly four-legged deities descended from the sacred layers of heaven to announce what the Aztec calendar had foretold would be the coming of a new epoch.

It is their ability to speak on multiple levels--historical, symbolic, Western, non Western, tactile, kinesthetic, down home, upper crust, country and courtly--that enables Butterfield’s horses to continue to compel.  This is no mean feat, considering her graceful beasts have survived and flourished over the last three decades in the context of successive reigning art practices less than hospitable to this type of work.

It is equally paradoxical that this work has been long established with the art world’s elite, yet it is honest and accessible, able to speak to a range of subjective experiences in ways that art with a more explicitly democratic intent often does not.

This might be because of this wedding of message and process that Butterfield hit upon back in the early 1970s when she first executed her horses.  She moved to Montana then and--haute artiste though she may be--she still tends to mundane things like rain, hay, and leaking barns, while tromping the terrain to scavenge natural and man made debris (old barbed wire, rotted fence posts, bits of metal, sticks, twigs, mud, an old tricycle, every raw and broken leftover) that is eventually pulled, bent and yanked to create her great creatures.  That intense hands-on labor relates to both how she makes this art and how one lives a life in nature.  This intimate finding, knowing, moving, hauling, smelling of materials, soil and animals comes through in even the most gallery-pristine pieces.  It mitigates against preciousness, against art that might otherwise only address museum trustees or the polo club.

Having been constructed in natural materials and then committed to bronze, there is something mysterious, direct and profound about huge horses made from the temporal stuff of nature that transcends sappy nostalgia for the great outdoors; this does not always translate well to metal.

But whether made from metal or twig, this is no commercial whim or easy signature.  It is the product of a long and deep arch.  Butterfield grew up in San Diego around horses, loving, riding, drawing horses, and decided between animal medicine and art.  She was educated in ceramics under Robert Arneson and received her MFA from UC Davis.  There she rented a house on a horse farm, and was drawn back to a subject that she swears is more about who she is, and tangentially who we all are, than about horses per se.  Seeing this work, I believe her.