Jonathan Butt's two-person exhibition with Mernet Larsen opens on March 19 (reception 7-10pm) at Regina Rex, 1717 Troutman Street, #329, and continues through April 17.
The L: How do you begin a work, what triggers your process?
: I think it's a combination of having this very unformed idea of a mass and a scale that will be the sculpture, and I know that I will be approaching that. And then taking a process that will make an object or a form or a beginning that's too complex to quickly understand. So with a lot of these I'm beginning by pouring plaster and building very loose armatures that will get me to a place where there will be a lot of information that I haven't considered before that step had been taken. And then from there it's a lot of editing and adding and putting away for a couple of months. So I think that the way I begin is to try to get something in front of me without dictating the specifics of what's happening.
Your work is often very funny; how do you see humor functioning in your practice?
I've used humor to disarm the viewer, but it's also on occasion been a problem, where humor becomes a very easy way to read something. And if somebody's uncomfortable or nervous that becomes a default reaction. I've had experiences where it foils other issues that I would like to be more salient. I think in more the more figurative and narrative work that I've done it's been more of a problem because it reads as cartoon and all these associations people have. But with the newer work, I think the humor is still there, but it's a little bit more difficult to exit the work through the humor.
Have you found that pushing your work further into abstraction has been the key to avoiding this problem?
I think that's a good solution; to make the work a little bit less nameable, where there's more struggle to recognize what one is looking at. And especially with humor where there's this perception that the artist sets up the situation and then the viewer gets the setup. I think abstraction slows that process a lot.
Has there been a specific process that has helped you strip your work of more narrative elements, into abstraction?
It's been a back-and-forth, it hasn't been this one-directional reduction of motif. My interest in figuration and more nameable object-driven work is that I did want there to be an abstraction, but I wanted the component of that assemblage to be more complex.I didn't want them to be reducible to geometries and design fundamentals. So I wanted to use characters from pop culture and these devices that came with a lot of baggage and try to have them function in the same way. And it's difficult to have both, to bring all that history in, and then ask the viewer to look past it while keeping it there at the same time. I think what processes are available dictate a lot of how I go about doing that, whether it's available material, studio space, time, all these logistic parameters are an undeniable influence. One thing I'm trying to get better at is accommodating that set of limitations and embracing that set of limitations and embracing that as why the work is the way it is. As opposed to coming to a new project with an idea that demands a certain material or a type of fabrication and then just struggling to the detriment of the work to make it happen that way.
Is that how you used to work, when doing the more narrative, figurative pieces pieces? Or has it always been this process?
It's always been a mix, but there have been times and bodies of work that were made more in that vein where there was an idea and a set of relationships that had to happen and everything else was sacrificed to realize that particular thing. I think working like that, I would embrace it again in the right circumstance, where the resources were available, and it doesn't become such a trade-off. If one can work sort of freely and loosely and wield all kinds of fabricators and finishes and things that take a lot of energy, that would be fantastic, but it all has to be scalable.
In what ways do the new works for this show differ from your earlier work?
The feature that I think is the same is this interest in building a very localized, discreet kind of sculpture that doesn't move into installation. However, there's this interest in this transition between what isn't the work and what is the work, and the devices and the frames and various things that are done to get somebody from the world to the work and yet not have the work fill in that transitional area such as an installation might. I think that's consistent.
I think what's different now is a more subtle or direct use of pedestals and really letting the work be this object that is on a platform and it purports to contain all of the important relationships within itself in this somewhat conventional or at least twentieth century idea of an object but at the same time knowing that that's always going to be spilling out and never really be contained.
It's almost like returning to this earlier idea of what a sculpture is, via the conventional contemporary attitude towards sculpture as an installation.
That's always be an interest, to not reinvent or really embrace what's come before as far as some parameters to use to get into the more poetic decisions and not reach too far out into the gray.
But do you have that impulse many young sculptors seem to share to try to create more enveloping, installation-like works?
No, I don't have that ambition in that way. I think the gallery space is really terrific at what it does, it's really efficient, it offers a lot of assistance as far as getting the viewer to that place, and so I just think it's this great service that it would be redundant to try to re-clad in my own treated surfaces.
That's a really good point, because most people think of the gallery as this blank canvas that you're supposed to fill, whereas you're using it more like a stage.
Right. And that it does, even though it's ostensibly neutral, it does something very directional that is helpful.
Do you have any sense of how many pieces you're going to include in the show?
I'll see what fits and what doesn't, but it looks like half a dozen, somewhere around there, will be the perfect number. I think it's going to be a balancing act between a fairly gridded-out arrangement of the work so that it doesn't read as scatter, but not so many that it's this kind of assembly-line, battery-style, "one could replace the next" kind of overabundance.
How have you selected the pedestals for these pieces?
Well, the pedestals came about because I wanted some reference to or basically the form of the white rectilinear pedestal, but I wanted to move it a few steps outside of the gallery and reference a more domestic space. Or not even a domestic interior space but the space of the world, the non-gallery props of our lives. So I wanted something that was very close to being that cube and that riser but had a little bit more detailing and a little molding. And so the idea was that they would be neutralized somewhat but still have all of these other associations to them. And I think also that would really change what that surface is that the sculptures are sitting on. It would be loaded in a somewhat different way than it's loaded when it's on a conventional pedestal. But again I didn't exactly want the pedestal to be of equal weight to the work on top of it. It's still the secondary device and should be one step between the floor and the work.
That sort of goes back to what you were saying about removing the figurative elements from your work, because those recognizable images have moved out of the sculpture, and are underneath it.
That's a great way to describe that continuity. Yes, I do still want the nameable object, but it isn't so much the feature. And initially, at the beginning of this project, the idea was to paint all of the pedestals white, and really pass them off entirely. And the more I got into it I felt like I could be a little bit more free about how much finish and how camouflaged the found objects are. It's gonna be more of a full spectrum of approximating a gallery object and retaining the found object.
Did you actually find the furniture you're using as pedestals on the street?
No, it's been a combination of dedicated shopping trips, and inheriting a few and some of them I actually made. It hasn't been a regimented process.
Your finished pieces often feature aspects of raw, unformed materials. That transformative effect in your work seems very strong, whereby objects begin in one form and bloom into another.
I think there are two reasons why the work has taken on this emerging of form from raw material or becoming or coming into a form but not fully. One is that there's a real problem with building something with a lot of layers and density and being able to have control over every surface and so I think to accommodate that I wanted to embrace raw material. So if, as I was working, a material was left unfinished, and then because of whatever construction was formed around it it became inaccessible, that would be a component that I would embrace.
And then also I believe in a broader sense that sculpture, or successful sculpture, should embrace this transitional or in-between location between a realized, understood, socially acceptable thing, and something that is not formed in the least bit, or doesn't coax interest out of the viewer. I think finding that in-between spot is the core reason for trying to stop at that spot. And that's its own problem: trying to figure how much is enough formation and what seals off the work and makes it stale and predictable, and finding a medium.
Do you consider drawing something that's part of your sculptural process or a pursuit unto itself?
Drawing is something that's integral to the making of the sculptural works. It's something that I've had more difficulty with in realizing a show based on drawing. I think because I've had such of history of using drawing as a building tool that taking the step of not using volumetric material is very uncomfortable. I have made drawing shows, pretty strong shows, and it's definitely a possibility. But there is more of an innate attraction to building objects.
Your pieces often occasion encounters between grid-like forms and more fluid shapes; is that a tension you're consciously exploring, or does it come about more organically through your process?
Mixing organic form and more rectilinear building is very much what I've been pursuing with this recent work, and I think trying to get those two types of building to coexist and almost in some fantastical way to actually occupy the same space is very interesting to me. It's kind of this impossibility and they really don't like to interact—one works very well with numbers and measurement, and the others is this not unmeasurable but very complex curvilinear component. So it was a good way for me to set up a problem that wouldn't be easily solved or calculable that I would have to make a box do something it didn't want to or find a way to bolt something onto a curved surface that really didn't want to be stable. Formally it also opened up a lot of things where a motif or way of building could get passed back and forth between those two modes and be a kind of exciting, exploratory way of working, to see a grid work on a curved surface or have a very messy paint job that then spills over onto a very organized wooden construction and create a jumble.
You use color quite sparingly or tactfully; is that a factor that you're weary of incorporating in your work?
I wouldn't say that I'm weary of color, however, given that I am wanting to embrace the raw material in certain instances in the work, it does kind of dictate the way color functions. To introduce something that is pointedly an applied color has a much bigger impact on the overall work. So in these new works I've been much more hesitant to use saturated color or color that's too far away from the palette that's come up from the plaster and the other materials that I'm using. So yes, I've been hesitant to use color, but at the same time I think this kind of tepid application has been interesting to me, where there's this impulse to design and apply color and have that relationship going. So, yes, it's been minimal but important.
Has color, or lack of color, ever been something that's dictated your choice of material?
Color hasn't been the reason I've gone for certain materials. Materials have really been used for their form-building qualities and then the colors have followed. But I think of paint as one of the main materials in these works, so it's also in there by the way paint works, but not so much because I'm picking colored plastic or something that's infused with color.
How long do you spend on a sculpture?
I don't spend a fixed amount of time on each sculpture. One thing that has been consistent is that they've been around for quite a while, so things will begin, get set aside, picked up a couple months later, and I think that's been very important because that time allows me to establish how I feel about what's going on. And some works have gone through that sort of incubation where they come out unchanged—I live with them for a while and I still can't think of something else that would improve them. And then there are others that, after a few months, I realize "Oh, this is what I can't stand about it," and then I can go about remedying that. But I have no idea how long each one takes me.
Is that the best way for you to gauge when a piece is done—you've been living with it long enough that you can tell when it's completed?
Having spent a certain amount of time definitely makes me feel more confident about that decision—that I've gone over whether or not it's finished that it seems to answer that question. But there are quantities and amounts that feel right or wrong. So if something is too complex or too busy that can be a problem, and if something doesn't quite have the structural relationships that I'm going for then something has to be added or it can sit on the shelf for a few more months. So, yes, there's some loose ideal and I don't quite know how to describe what that ideal is, and I guess that's what making the work is about, to somehow realize what this balance and this amount is.
How do you title your works?
These works I'm inclined not to title. Other works that were more narrative, or driven by narrative, it was more logical to make a nod to that source material. Whereas these, I think, are much less linguistic and a little bit more fragile in that way, where titling them would push all of this somewhat neutral material in a very fixed direction. So I'm a little bit less inclined to title these work. I think we're so acclimated to verbal language that if one isn't getting a lot of clues from what one's looking at then those words just become the guide to the work.
The forms and materials of these new works are very unfamiliar, but every so often there's a fragment of something recognizable in a piece; is that surprising familiarity something you're intentionally exploring?
I do want to make shapes that have recognizable detail. So the overall structure of a work might be less recognizable, but there could be some detailing, some texture, some stitching that does hark back to something that somebody would know or interact with. I think that brings up this issue of patterning: that I've wanted an amount of pattern that is recognizable and familiar but very quickly patterns take on a lot of meanings culturally, politically, and I haven't been ready to address that. So I've been using things like grids, stitches, patterns that are a little bit more on the geometric end of that kind of pattern-making. While I do want a viewer to have a lot of association, I don't want that to land in any particular spot, but to kind of generate this suggestion that there is connection and then hopefully that can spin off in any number of directions depending on who's looking at it.
Are there any artist's who've been particularly significant influences for you?
There have been many, many artists who I've been inspired by: Richard Tuttle is an important person for me, Franz West obviously, to more structural artists or procedure-driven artists like Sol LeWitt. I think right now, I just saw a few really great shows: there's John Williams's painting show at Brennan & Griffin
that's really fantastic. And I don't think of myself as a painter, but I really identified with the work he was doing; it's gone from kinetic sculpture to painting and back, and video, so he really jumps all over the place so far as material, but it all has this incredible consistency and complexity. There was a really great show up at Marc Jancou, the Jacques Louis Vidal
sculpture show; I really took a lot away from that.
Is there any other medium you're really interested in or drawn to, aside from sculpture?
For now I'm very invested in sculpture. A parallel track to my making this work has been doing a lot of video and post-production—not as my own output just as an activity. So I'm very fascinated with that and also I think a very contemporary problem of what it means to go back and forth between analog-physical and virtual-digital. I think there's something very exciting there. but as far as projects I'm slated to work on in the near future, not so much, it's still going to be very physical. But definitely digital-making and working with time and animation is of interest.
That matches up nicely with these new sculptures and their tension between really fluid and dematerialized forms and their very physical, linear grid-like shapes.
As far as a play between materiality and physicality, and then this more weightless, virtual interest or aesthetic, I think I'm more acclimated or used to some of the shortcomings of building objects, whereas I think I'm still more seduced by what is possible with digital production. I don't feel quite as confident that I will be shrewd in my editing of that kind of work. So I think that's why I still kind of lean towards physical building. Also, I think that because there's such an overabundance of digital media and digital images that this for me is almost a salve to that over-saturation. Not only are we looking at screens more, but then the objects that we're interacting with are more sleek and more seamless and we don't even recognize them as being physical. They kind of pass themselves off as not even existing—they're paper-thin—so I think there's something very important about reminding at least myself that there is material and we are traversing space and there are these things that are sculptural.
You've mentioned a couple of times now this notion of editing, of removing from a work; is that something you find yourself doing physically by pulling and cutting elements away from a work, or is it more during the process that you decide not to do certain things to a piece that you had planned?
For me editing goes both directions: it's selectively adding and then very much subtracting, taking out the saw, and something that was very whole and resolved will then kind of get undone and there'll have to be a new solution. And I think that's been very liberating. I think maybe 70 percent of it is selective adding and then there's this important and usually more brutal step of undoing. And of course undoing with material is a very physical process so I've also learned to embrace the artifacts of that undoing and usually that becomes in a way an added feature even though there's less material, there's this new quality.
Is that difficult for you? Is it more liberating, or is it also sort of like sacrificing part of your work?
I think at the moment of committing the subtractive act it's quite liberating, but it's not something that I'm especially rash about doing. There's caution about when that happens, but it is nice to free oneself of the thing that they were attached to or grew to recognize in the studio. Hacking something apart is very creative in a way because you used to have this one thing that you were mildly committed to and now you have five things that are fresh and could be used in any number of ways.
There's got to be some pleasure in that process of taking something that is really rigid and blowing it apart; is that something you feel as you're working, and is it something you're trying to evoke in the viewer?
I think there's pleasure and anxiety in disrupting something that presents itself as having an order, and I think that unease is something that I want to exist in the work and elicit in the viewer.
Do you reuse the parts you remove in other works?
I think in spirit I'm open to recycling the off-cuts back into other work. I think a lot of times it's problematic because it has this homogenizing effect where a feature of one work will show up in another and I think in the name of making a cohesive exhibition that's a very quick way to solve that problem, so I'm a little bit leery of doing it too much. But it definitely has happened.
There's a lot of containment in these works: certain forms are kind of wrapped, or emerging from other forms.
Yeah, I'm glad you brought that up because I think in approaching this there's been a balance between surface unto itself and surface that creates volume. And for me I'm trying to create a volume, something that blurred or at first glance is a shape that contains space inside of it, but constantly opening that up and emphasizing the surface almost as this immaterial, two-dimensional skin. So I think with a lot of these there is evidence of both of those things: this form and then this more open skin happening. I think sometimes that skin is woven through, and in other instances it's more of a wrapper going around a more dense core.
Right, there's a great deal of interiority to the work; you want to know what is in it, or how thick it is. You invariably want to look inside it.
For me the opposite was happening with the pedestals: when I was collecting these pieces of furniture the first thing I was doing was filling in all the cavities, so a lot of these actually had open spaces for what have you, books, etc. And so I really wanted to make this closed, a little bit less intriguing shape whereas the pieces up top are very about pushing inside of them and seeing through them and creating this more rich space.
(photos by Louis Gruber)