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Scratched along the bottom of an undated pastel and pigment drawing by Eugenia Perpetua Butler (1947-2008), a single line of text reads: “how can I dream about the freedom of the self when I am a citizen of a rogue nation terrorizing and corrupting the entire planet?” This question, also the drawing’s title, floats beneath a loosely-rendered, distant mountain in chilly pre-dawn light—a scene of Burkian sublime. Beyond its resonance with a host of contemporary anxieties—in its dual acknowledgment of a desire for intellectual and embodied freedom and the external forces that conspire against such dreams—this work can be approached as a crucible for the line of inquiry that Butler advanced throughout her four decades of art-making.
That Which Emerges is the first solo exhibition of the West Coast conceptual artist since her death a decade ago. Bringing together four bodies of work that span the years 1967 to 2003, the exhibition reveals an artist who is as much invested in probing a world of psychic interiority through a near-mystical practice of self-reflection as she is in employing conceptual and discursive strategies in response to the world around her. In Constellation Piece (1996-7), we glimpse the artist’s voice, situating herself within the infinite, the words “I am here” penciled on a deep navy ground both inside and outside of a web of interconnected points of stellar light. Butler’s seductive series of Flesh Drawings (ca. 1990) layer bodily forms and colors that are at once intestinal and epidermal. Retreating farther into a carnal iconography, their looser, more painterly style and precise formal vocabulary balances against the rigor of the text-based pieces.
The Kitchen Table (1993), a happening presented here through over 22 hours of video documentation, illuminates the stakes of Butler’s dual investments in psychic interiority and the outward-facing stance of the artist as intellectual. In a hidden fair booth at ART/LA 1993, Butler hosted a series of eight conversations with a coterie of peers: Suzanne Lacy, Marina Abramovic, Carolee Schneemann, Allan Kaprow, John Outterbridge, Joan Jonas, among others. Each unfolded over a shared meal, the interlocutors digging into topics from the role of dreams in the creative process to its deskilling. Within the space of the fair—where art’s contentious relationship to capital is most naked—Butler’s hermetic placement of these conversations underscored her preoccupation with interiority (represented literally in this work) and its relationship to discourse.
While The Kitchen Table demonstrates Butler’s strong, if previously under-appreciated, foothold within the lineage of conceptual art, much of her work is in touch with cosmic forces and affective registers that feel beyond the scope of conceptualism’s commitment to hard-edged rationalism. What That Which Emerges presents is a significant slice of an unrelentingly curious intellect and a roving imagination.
Eugenia P. Butler: That Which Emerges runs from September 15 – November 3, 2018 at The Box (805 Traction Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90013).