Paul Butler

Paul Butler
Lisa Kehler Art + Projects
June 6 – 20, 2015

There seems to be a conviction among many artists that music is not quite at pains to justify itself the way visual art seems to be. From this side of the fence, music seems to enjoy unadulterated access into experience that words can never fully articulate. This belief is the impetus behind Paul Butler’s Words Fall Short, the inaugural exhibition at Lisa Kehler Art + Projects. Butler taps into a connection that, by now, might seem cliché: the relationship between art and jazz.

Perhaps the allure jazz had for many abstract expressionists resulted in art criticism’s pilfering of music terminology. Words like improvisation, syncopated rhythm and staccato became common terms to describe non-representational painting. Mondrian was inspired by jazz rhythms to create Broadway Boogie Woogie (1943); Jackson Pollock, who often listened to free form, had his White Light (1954) posthumously featured on an Ornette Coleman album cover; Julian Schnabel used a soundtrack of Miles Davis and Charlie Parker in his film Basquiat (1996) to show the young artist at work. In conversation, Butler admits he’s no expert in jazz — he shows a greater affinity for Bob Dylan — though he cites it as an inspiration for his first Winnipeg solo show in a decade. Words Fall Short features fourteen new collages that employ the aesthetic of jazz album covers with their stylized artworld references, including many Mondrian-derived geometries and, in one case, an Alexander Calder mobile. Five of his collages stray toward art historical juxtapositions that, in their formatting, reveal the artist’s primary source material — art books. While the jazz pieces retain the shape of the original record sleeves, they too were sourced from a Taschen compendium of album covers. In the end, it’s not improvisation that marks Butler’s particular brand of collage as much as, if the music metaphor is to be used, a replay of standards with a notable tinge of sentimentality.

At 42 x 42 inches, many of the collages are closer in scale to a painting than an album cover though each retains strong references to its source. Butler’s cut lines always follow the contours of faces and abstract shapes to produce images that could be new releases of their Blue Note originals. His careful aesthetic decisions betray an intuitive reaction to surface rather than an investment in the messy, political history of jazz. About a third of the works, however, utilize an entirely different set of strategies. Butler points out one piece that marks a transitional moment. From his collection of imagery, an ancient Cretan vase made its way into a collage resulting in a shift to explicitly art historical content, territory obviously more familiar to the artist. The change marks a nuanced and personal approach to his material. Rather than following the outlines in the original images, Butler tears pages, cuts out rough rectangles, and employs content-laden juxtapositions. His use of iconic images, such as Rococo interiors and the Mona Lisa, read like a return to standards via the medium of the first-year art history survey. One image, Untitled (Words Fall Short, Art School) (2015), features a cut-out of spilled paint vertically flanked by two black and white photographs of a nude female body — presumably the painter’s model. The flow of paint is echoed in the curve of legs emerging from behind the photo, bringing to mind Yves Klein’s infamous Anthropométrie performance (1960), where naked women slathered in blue paint dragged each other across large swathes of canvas laid out on the floor. Another collage combines illusionary Baroque ceilings with the bare legs and gloved hands of a pin-up girl. The space between art model and sex symbol is collapsed and depicted through a boy’s gaze, specifically the new art student whose learned boundaries of the body, sexuality and depiction come up for particularity titillating transgression. Though the images always stay in the realm of suggestion keeping innocence safely intact.

The word innocence has been used by Butler in reference to his work in the past, as well as in the interview with Lisa Kehler that accompanies the show. “I’m trying to get back to the innocence I had before I became a ‘professional’ artist,” says Butler. In a 2003 interview for the artist’s exhibition My Mad Skillz at the Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art, Robert Enright notes that Butler’s projects lay claim to innocence despite being “fraught with knowledge.” Responding with the “ignorance is bliss” dictum, Butler evinces a suspicion of words and their propensity to dictate the direction of art. Yet the innocence Butler repeatedly invokes is tied to one’s first fascination with art, replete in the youthful wonder and prejudice that reveals more about social construct than intuition. That moment can be remarkably formative and often remains a source of nostalgia for a time when things just seemed less complicated.

But, of course, things never really were less complicated, and Butler, in his various roles as curator, art dealer and event organizer, is well aware of that. The only thing less complicated was one’s level of understanding, which might still provide fertile ground for the peeling back of layers that create the illusion of simplicity. It is ironic, then, that in his art historical collages, Butler betrays a level of visual sophistication not present in the jazz works. His cuts and tears are simpler yet more decisive. His juxtapositions of images take content into account rather than just form. They feel, as Enright noted, “fraught with knowledge” even as they evoke sentimentality with their art school references. Perhaps Butler’s return to that initial innocent moment can reveal just how much knowledge has been intuitively internalized and is, in the end, inescapable.