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The origin story of Kathy Butterly’s endlessly inventive sculptural practice—whether she is telling it herself, or it is being written by others—typically begins with her formative influences. As an undergraduate painting student, she was introduced to the huge ceramic figures and athletically immersive process of Viola Frey, an encounter that first revealed to her clay’s expressive capacity. The narrative moves forward from there, through graduate study under the irreverent Robert Arneson and assimilation of the delicious formal deviancies of George Ohr, Ken Price, and Ron Nagle. Further back, though, there’s another old key that I learned of through a podcast interview shortly before seeing Yellow Haze, a ravishing selection of Butterly’s recent work at Shoshana Wayne Gallery: if she weren’t working in clay, the artist briefly thought she might become a designer of shoes, or maybe toys. This tidbit of personal history teases out even more resonance from her intimately-scaled works, dense as they are with allusions to the body. Their sunken mouths now also assume for me the tender, bereft quality of empty shoes whose walls gently collapse around the memory of a held form. If Butterly’s motley beauties spur limitless reads, it’s the result of each of them being, for her, a vehicle for uninhibited, improvisational, rule-averse play.
The 13 sculptures in the exhibition range from six to 13 inches high. Some riff on the shape of a delicate handled pot while others extrapolate from a clunkier, closed form—a cross between a crumpled urn and a human head. All abound in time-released, idiosyncratic surprises of gesture, texture, and color: they buckle, sag, and tilt; high gloss gives way to dry crust; primaries, pastels, and near-neons consort with lush abandon. The pieces perform as synecdochal self-portraits, externalized reckonings with internal states and conditions.
Butterly squeezes every drop from clay’s association with supple skin and the vessel’s analogous relationship to the human form. Her works are exquisitely tweaked anatomies that emit a pulse. Trying to Keep My Shit Together (While the World is Burning) (all works 2020) manifests a valiant but futile aspiration toward order. The deflated sphere sits atop a small rectangular block like a trophy on its pedestal, its skinny handles turned into useless, drooping loops. Both the soft, globular form and its base are glazed in primaries gone slightly amok, soupy gold offset by geometric stripes of dark blue. Strands of tiny beads around the top and down the sides hint at decorum, while the mouth of the piece, pinched to a narrow slit, affords a glimpse of raw, private vulnerability within—pink inner walls slick as wet gums, or labial folds.
Butterly refers to conventionally feminine modes of embellishing and camouflaging the body through her use of ornamental frills, straps, belts, and decorative fastenings. Vibrant, seductive glazes, like makeup, dial up or down attention to each work’s given features. Similarly, she applies nail polish to a few of the sculptures and uses it as viscous paint in an ongoing series of works on paper, nine of which are included here. For each spunky piece, Butterly has taken a page from a recent catalog of her own work and augmented the reproduction with a semi-controlled spill of streaked and marbled color. In #19, for instance, the hourglass base of her 1991 Juggler now resembles a cake stand, supporting a cylindrical heap, thickly iced in cherry, licorice, and lemon. The inexhaustibility of Butterly’s work announces itself anew in these works on paper, which extend the lifespan of each sculpture: ceramic object becomes photograph becomes painting surface. Butterly never stops messing with what might be considered “finished,” in both the temporal and presentational sense. Her playthings never get old.
Kathy Butterly: Yellow Haze runs from January 22–April 3, 2021 at Shoshana Wayne Gallery (4835 W. Jefferson Blvd., Los Angeles, 90016).