Kathy Butterly and the Aesthetic Challenge of “No Two Alike”byon March 16, 2014
Here is a partial list of of the shows devoted to ceramic sculpture that anyone living in Manhattan could have seen during the last year: Ken Price: Sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (June 18–September 22, 2013), which I reviewed for Hyperallergic Weekend; Joanne Greenbaum: Sculpture at Kerry Schuss (May 2–June 2, 2013); Betty Woodman: Windows, Carpets and Other Paintings at Salon 94 Freemans (May 7–June 15);Alice Mackler: Sculpture, Painting, Drawing at Kerry Schuss (June 9–July 26, 2013); Arlene Schechet: Slip at Sikkema Jenkins (October 10–November 16, 2013); Mary Frank, Elemental Expressionism: Sculpture 1969–1985 & Recent Work at DC Moore (November 14–December 21, 2013), for which I wrote the catalogue essay; Lynda Benglis at Cheim and Read (January 16–February 15, 2014).
Current exhibitions include: Jiha Moon: Foreign Love Too at Ryan Lee (February 1–March 15); Norbert Prangenberg: The Last Works at Garth Greenan (February 27–April 5, 2014), for which I also wrote the catalogue essay; and Kathy Butterly: Enter at Tibor de Nagy (February 27–April 19, 2014).
I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that ceramics are finally beginning to get some serious attention in New York. There is still a very long way to go, but the city does seem to be waking up to ceramics as an art form. Whether this change is momentary or part of a larger paradigm shift remains to be seen. As I see it, the stakes are high. For in the debate between art and craft, between de-skilled conceptualism and a skill set, ceramics has always been slighted. For some thinkers, a pair of dirty hands can be equated with a weak mind.
When Ken Price was asked if ceramics were art or craft, he said, “yes.” His take-no-prisoner’s response challenges the deeply entrenched attitude that the mind (conceptual art) is superior to the body (everything that isn’t conceptual art). In a domain of art making that appears to be dominated by women, is it any wonder that not a single New York museum (the Ken Price retrospective, organized by Stephanie Barron, originated at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art) has attempted to address what is going on in ceramic sculpture? One reason for this glaring absence might simply be that there is no curator in New York who is interested in ceramic sculpture or who is qualified to assemble a historical survey of what has been going on in ceramics on the East Coast since the beginning of this century.
Kathy Butterly’s current show, Enter, at Tibor de Nagy confirms what I first thought when I reviewed her previous solo show, Panty Hose and Morandi, at the same gallery for theBrooklyn Rail: “Kathy Butterly is an American original whose closest forbearer is George Ohr (1857–1918), ‘The Mad Potter of Biloxi.’ The formal traits she shares with Ohr include a penchant for crumpled shapes, twisted and pinched openings, and making (as Ohr was understandably proud to point out) ‘no two alike.’ Working within the confines of the fired clay vessel, Butterly has transformed this long established, historical convention into something altogether fresh and new, melding innovation to imagination so precisely that it is impossible to separate them.” To this earlier observation, I would now add: For this and many other reasons, Butterly is deserving of an in-depth museum survey.
Consider the intersection at which Butterly has chosen to work, and you get a sense of her ambition and genius. While maintaining a modest scale, she continually reinvents the fired clay vessel (cup or vase) in ways that exceed anything anyone else has done in the medium. From the unique base to the distinct body (creased, collapsing, convoluted and twisted), to the diverse surface, which can run from smooth to craqueled, often in the same piece, to the saturated color (sunshine yellow, fleshy pink, Veronese green and fire engine red), to minute details (yellow lozenges the size of an elf’s pat of butter), everything (including the spills and stains) in a Butterly sculpture attains its own particular identity…