“Going on Being”: Kathy Butterly in conversation with Elena Sisto
I visited Kathy Butterly’s studio last June and spent time with her and her new work ahead of her current show at James Cohan Gallery in Chelsea. The conversation continued, mostly via email. Butterly talks here about process and her ways of thinking as she works. Her new work is bigger, more abstract and colorful than in her last show, at Tibor de Nagy. It’s filled with the same playfulness and psychological agility her admirers have come to expect from her, but with a slightly more aggressive edge.
ELENA SISTO: You’ve scaled your work up and gone quite a bit more abstract in the imagery.
KATHY BUTTERLY: My new works are larger and it feels right. It actually feels great. My work has been evolving in this direction for a while. The larger ones are allowing me to speak more formally and allowing the materials to speak in ways that I feel communicate where I am now. I’m continuing the conversation/ideas that I have been interested in for many years: color, mass of color, line, mass of line. The materials themselves take on roles in the work, becoming the protagonists or antagonists within a piece. I still enjoy working on my smaller scale forms and they are shifting too. I really like the challenges they are bringing to me; they still reference the body while also becoming more abstract.
You’ll sometimes fire a piece many times, almost to the point of exhausting the glaze. Is that because you have a succinct image in your mind of what you are after in a piece, or are you are finding it step by step? Describe your process of revision and how you change your mind about what you want.
I fire a piece from 15-30 times, a few times up to forty. I have no idea what a piece will be about or look like beforehand; I “find” the piece by working on it. With each addition of glaze or clay I need to fire the piece in order to see what I’ve done. My process and world events equally influence the direction and meaning of my work.
I start by casting a form from a plaster mold that I’ve made from a store-bought form, so a readymade, and then manipulate the clay while it is still malleable until I see/feel something in it, sort of Rorschach-like. I may add some clay forms to it then start to refine the piece. I really love this part of the process. I carve the piece, smooth it until it feels alive and becomes like a three-dimensional line drawing. Next I’ll fire the piece, put some glaze on it, then fire again, take the piece out, decide on the next color or addition and fire again.
Many mistakes are made and many times the direction I thought I was going shifts according to the results I get. I look forward to making mistakes. They’re part of the process. They push the works forward. Mistakes are great because they create mysteries/problems for me to figure out and they often take me to a deeper place where I am willing to risk losing a piece in order to make it work for me.
The amazing work of George Ohr comes up often in the context of yours. Do you look at him?
George Ohr was a genius. He was a master of his material, a master of scale. He merged figuration and abstraction and that is something I am very interested in. If you give his work time, especially the unglazed ones, you may “enter” them and understand their architecture, the mindful directionality of the work and how, ultimately, they become huge, like a Richard Serra sculpture. You just need to allow yourself to go there.
What do you look to for inspiration? Do you listen to music, NPR (like so many artists), or play TV in your studio while you’re working?
I listen to WNYC, NPR, and when I get too depressed from listening to the news I’ll listen to music. The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, Courtney Barnett, Kurt Vile, Elliot Smith, Neil Young, and Ryan Adams are among my faves in the studio and I’ve also started to listen to podcasts like Sound and Vision.
Everything inspires me or at least I can say influences me, especially living in NYC and Maine. In terms of art, I’ve been looking and thinking a lot about how materials are used and how much empathy or power can be obtained from a brush stroke or a drawn line; the intentionality of a cut or a mark. Examples of this would be Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie-Woogie and how much thought, weight and sense of direction went into each stroke; or Alice Neel and how much feeling she got out of one brush stroke or a drawn line; Antonella da Messina and how I feel he was sculpting his portraits with paint – just look at how he described a lip or an eye. I look at Lucio Fontana’s slashed canvases and think how those probably would not have come into being had he not worked with clay beforehand and used a large fettling knife to cut through huge slabs of clay. So – how artists use their materials and get so much expression from them.
How important it is the acquisition of skill to you?
Skill is a big deal. Mastering something gives you options. It gives you freedom. When you have skill and knowledge of your materials your intuition can flow. You can take the work to where it wants to go.
Where did you study and with whom? Did being on the West Coast influence you at all?
I attended Moore College of Art in Philadelphia for undergrad and UC Davis for graduate school. At Moore I studied with Jack Thompson and Ken Vavrek where I was taught some important foundational skills for working with clay. At Davis I studied the closest with Robert Arneson. Other dynamic faculty were Wayne Thiebaud, David Hollowell, Manuel Neri, Squeak Carnwath, Mike Henderson and others. There was history at Davis and I was studying with the people who made it.
What I learned was that art was lived, it was a life style, it was your friends, it reflected the world, we all inspired each other. Of course I learned more skill, art history, etc. but it was the spirit of being an artist that probably left its mark most strongly on me.
Yes, California was influential on me and still is. I was being drawn there by the art, by the colors that were being used, how clay was being used in ways that were not traditional, not pottery – they were making art out of it. I first saw the work of Ken Price, Ron Nagle, Viola Frey, and Bob Arneson when I was at Moore College of Art. I had thought clay had no meaning- it was pottery-and they proved me wrong.
A visit by Viola Frey to Moore changed my life. At that time working with clay was not embraced by the art world the way it currently is. Viola made larger than life figurative sculptures that were equally painting and sculpture and they had meaning. I watched Viola womp down 25 lbs. of clay on the wheel and throw what was to be a large foot; this foot would be part of the base of one of her sculptures. She was a small woman who made work that was larger than life, powerful, political, and meaningful. She was a trailblazer, and she inspired me greatly.
Something that seems refreshing about working in clay is that it’s been with us for thousands of years, yet there seems to be less art theory involved than with sculpture. That may make it a more open space to work in. There’s great skill and technique involved but it’s a very empirical process. And it seems to me that you manage to elude both the more doctrinaire aspects of sculptural practice as well as the craftiness of ceramics.
Those are interesting observations. Yes. I find myself most comfortable not fittng in. This is a place for personal freedom. I don’t actively strive for this, its just who I am and the work reflects that.
When I first started out with clay I was also studying art history, painting, welding, etc. I felt a connection to clay and glaze and its potential. I also felt a strong connection to the vessel form. I learned what I needed to learn with clay and glaze to be able to make my work. I had no interest in learning how to make a pot or what temperature something was fired to. I just wanted the work to get fired to a state to where I could see the colors and the clay was hard. I’m interested in what my materials can do and how I can get to speak through them.
Many of your pieces stretch to reference an external system, object, order or artwork and then metamorphose or crumple into an intimate huddle–a pile up of attributes. (I can almost hear a whole range of sounds when looking at your work, like harrumphing, lip-smacking, quiet snorting, yawning, and dripping.) The pieces evidence psychic statthe collapse of an effort–or even a pretense–into a self-knowing and self-accepting humor and wellbeing. That brings to mind the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, who had a concept he called “going on being.” He believed that in a healthy parent-child relationship, the child is allowed to develop within the benign attention of the parents and feels supported and safe in her investigations and challenges. This allows her to forge a sense of self-continuity, self-acceptance and awareness of her ability to accomplish things on her own. If the parent intrudes upon or curtails the child’s process it stops the child from “going on being” and forces them to react to the parent instead. Does that concept relate to what you feel you’re doing?
You nailed it! Yes, that’s a great way to explain how I work. I feel that while I am working on a piece, I am its enabler, I take it to where it needs to go, the psychic state which is a reflection of what I am feeling at the time.
There are also formal considerations that go into the works that help to reinforce the piece’s emotive qualities by either adding psychological strength or adding psychological disorder. An example of this is the quality of a line. A line can be confident by being bold, perfect, a solid color, or can be nervous or shy by being thin, wispy, jagged. So line is both a formal and an emotional aspect of the work. As one who works three dimensionally, I also consider line to be the outline of the form itself.
So when I look at one of my forms the first thing I see when I start is a three-dimensional line drawing. I consider it a perfect line. In my work I currently feel this need to have something absolutely beautiful and perfect in it so that I can allow myself to have chaos in it. I need a balance of grace and chaos in my work. Line allows this.
How important is color?
Color is very important to me. Like line, color can have personality and also works formally. I use color in many different ways. Over the years I’ve built up a strong relationship to color and how it can create meaning. Sometimes glaze is built up so thick on a piece that the color itself becomes a form, and many times a sort of protagonist or antagonist in a piece. I have built up an understanding of the qualities of color; it can be translucent, solid, dry, cracked, glossy, etc. This all adds to the dialogue and meaning. Colors also represent meaning in terms of association to things in the real world. I feel that I have relationships with colors as I am working on a piece. Just like I feel I need to enable a piece to develop, I need to enable a color to speak, have meaning, have form.
I think you have achieved a mastery of your medium. There’s a fairly sizeable cohort of women artists for the first time in history coming to the fore that have really achieved mastery. It’s an exciting phenomenon to witness, enjoy and benefit from. Do you feel this also?
Absolutely, and thank you. I love what I do. I love learning about my materials and this learning is not done by reading or watching what others do but by doing, by making, by making mistakes that then turn into knowledge and possibly add value to the conversation and become a tool. I’m a big fan of Sheila Hicks, Rachel Harrison, Charlene Von Heyl, Amy Sillman, Phyllida Barlow and so many others. And though Alice Neel and Joan Mitchell have been embraced by the art world for quite a while I feel there has been renewed interest and re-evaluation of the importance of their work. Alina Szapocznikow also comes to mind.
I agree about these artists, but for the sake of argument I would call Alice Neel and Joan Mitchell pioneers. I’m thinking of the cohort coming after them. There’s a real swelling of the ranks starting with women now in their late 60’s or their 70’s, like Katherine Bradford, Louise Fishman, Mary Heilmann, Judy Linhares, Melissa Meyer, Catherine Murphy, Dona Nelson, Joyce Pensato, Joan Snyder, Barbara Takenaga, and many more. Many of these women are associated in some way with feminism or at least are benefitting from the gains of feminism. Then the next wave of women gets even larger. Maybe because of the effects of feminism women are finding a real place to stand in the culture and have a lot to say – and new ways of saying it. It’s invigorating for everyone.
Yes, I and I would include you too. What all these women have in common is a command of material and a strong sense of self. I’m friends with many of these artists and can say that all have dedicated their lives to their work.
Speaking of Joyce Pensato, she has Giacometti in her DNA and he was the king of repetition within very narrow parameters. What is the importance of repetition to you?
I feel a connection to Joyce, taking the same form, Mickey, and using it over and over again as her “vessel”…..yes, I do feel a connection and an understanding of why she does it.
Is repetition a way of making a place and an identity for yourself? Could you say that if one didn’t repeat oneself their work would lack meaning, it’d just be permutation?
KB:I like the idea of place. Yes, it is a place- a personal space in my mind for thought. I think the word identity feels too self conscious for me, I guess identity comes out of it but its not the starting point. Artists who immediately come to mind, whose work is repetitious and whose work I admire, are Stanley Whitney and Bernd and Hilla Becher. Repetition of an idea is, in a way, the same as mastering your materials- you are ‘mastering’ a concept or trying to fully understand an idea or a feeling- you are searching. The more one works at it, understands it, gets lost in it, fails it, triumphs, and walks into the unknown the more one masters it and then ‘owns’ it.
The other thing I can say about repetition or limiting oneself to an idea is that it is actually not limiting! Same thing for materials. You keep pushing the boundaries and you go to deeper places. I guess one could think that by ‘limiting’ myself to only ceramic materials and to a vessel oriented form that I would be bored or repeat myself, but I actually find the opposite to be true. There are times in the studio when something feels too familiar so I sabotage it and then deal with it—sometimes coming out with a new color, texture, idea. I know that for me the artists whom I feel the deepest connection to are artists who are obsessed with an idea, are forever on the ‘search’ and have a deep connection to their materials.
To address the second question- I can’t say that lack of repetition equals lack of meaning. I think there are plenty of good artists who have the ability to work with varied materials, varied styles, and varied ideas and find meaning in their work. I think they have an idea and need to see it out in different ways; Fischli & Weiss and Picabia come to mind.
What about Alina Szapocznikow?
Her stuff is creepy and beautiful and amazing. I saw her show at MoMA a few years back. There was a lot of work and I wasn’t sure how much I liked it but it stuck with me and now I really like it, but probably in small doses.
There’s often a smile in your work. Literally an upwards-turning curve that creates an emotional lift.
Yes, lately that has been my “in” to the piece. Don’t know why, just going with it.
Sometimes the grin is hopeful and happy. Sometimes it’s sarcastic and sinister. Sometimes it’s an ambivalent and worried smile. I work with or against the smile. It’s always there whether I cover it up or keep it.