Written by Salvatore Schiciano
The artist who works intuitively and responds to the present moment underscores how an artwork is at its best when it is freest and even playful. Playfulness, however, is not exclusive to the maker; rather, it’s a quality that can be shared with the viewer and adds to the complexity of visual interpretation.
Kathy Butterly’s work is notably undefinable, and that is its strength. The artist’s current exhibition of 24 new ceramics at James Cohan Gallery in Chelsea, which closes on October 20th, exemplifies how Butterly’s forms constantly fluctuate. Butterly’s materials--clay and glaze--are never used in a systematic or repetitious manner, which allows chance and experimentation with molding and the layering of glazes to guide the ceramics into being.
The forms derive from common vessels such as pint glasses and fish bowls, which Butterly first pinches, tucks, and stretches as dialogue with the wet clay develops. This conversation continues through the initial rounds of kiln firings, when the vessel begins to take shape. Occasionally, firings at this stage can yield surface ruptures which may or may not be patched and then reworked. Having manipulated this medium for two decades, Butterly’s intuition enables the works to grow organically, almost on their own.
The vessel is a hollow, created to contain something--a captivating concept for Butterly, who views the object as if it were a sanctuary, concentrated as the clay shrinks from the initial baking. The interior volume of the forms is minuscule, capable of holding only a few ounces or so. Yet through molding and glazing they appear to have greater volume. The success of these vessels lies in their deceptively small scale, as they seem to fluctuate between the intimate and the expansive.
At the next stage, glazes are applied, fired, assessed, re-glazed and refired, with sometimes upward of 20 plus firings per vessel. The repaintings and refirings allow for an array of finishes to be developed, ranging from high gloss and unblemished to patterned with the finest craquelure. The glazing process is as spontaneous and instinctual as when the vessel was wet and fresh from the mold. For Butterly, the process of glazing is no different from painting, and we can see echoes of Abstract Expressionism in the coloring and brushwork. Trailblazing painters, such as Joan Mitchell, might have as much influence on Butterly as ceramists George Ohr and Ken Price.
Each form is actually a test, Butterly admits. Even though you can sometimes anticipate what the kiln fires will do, you can never be certain. Serial firings can produce mistakes as well as revelations and ultimately these add to the artist’s lexicon. From the tedious molding of minute pearl strands to brash color blotching, her techniques are as varied as are her glazes. At the entrance to her studio, several tall glass cabinets showcase a large glaze collection, numbered close to 4,000. Butterly has been collecting glazes for more than 8 years, and the heterogeneity of her spectrums call to mind old-world dried-pigment shops or apothecary casements.
Butterly’s work is guided by the compass of intuition. Viewers can undertake pilgrimages to these reliquaries of emotion and memory. Multicolor works, such as Walk the Walk and Baked Sale, encapsulate a saturated disc of pigment that has been cracked by baking and recalls a store-bought watercolor set of our childhood left in the sun to dryout. It’s a touching homage to the painter within a personal cathedral of color.
“Do not despise my opinion, when I remind you that it should not be hard for you to stop sometimes and look into the stains of walls, or ashes of a fire, or clouds, or mud or like places, in which if you consider them well, you may find really marvelous ideas. The mind of the painter is stimulated to new discoveries, the composition of battles of animals and men, various compositions of landscapes and monstrous things, which may bring you honor, because by indistinct things the mind is stimulated to new inventions.”
– Leonardo da Vinci
Copyright Kathy Butterly. Image courtesy of the artist and James Cohan, New York.
Kathy Butterly: Thought Presence, James Cohan Gallery, 533 West 26th St. New York.
Closes Saturday October 20th, 2018