Tom Butler Talks To Artlyst About Inhabitants, Séances, And Concealment

Tom Butler

CHARLIE SMITH LONDON is currently exhibiting the work of artist Tom Butler, with his second one person show at the gallery. The artist’s practice revolves around the appropriation of Victorian cabinet cards, which Butler paints into with delicate gouache in extreme detail, creating strange creatures through the addition of abstract forms, and sculptural drawing with paint, where the subjects are divided by planes of paint, surrounded by ghostly painterly auras, masked in fetishistic swathes, or intersected by geometric devices, transforming the vintage images of Victorian sitters via the layering and surfacing of the individual’s face.

The photographs – often originally presented in the classic proportions of portraiture – are juxtaposed with abstraction, and an almost landscape topography; as the artist maps the face of the sitter, or even excavates their features entirely. Butler’s painting is instinctive and owes part of its practice to sculptural thinking.

Tom Butler was kind enough to give Artlyst a tour of his current exhibition ‘Inhabitants’ at CHARLIE SMITH LONDON, explaining the intricacies of his practice, the appropriation of Victorian images, and the reason behind his strange and enticing ectoplasmic abstractions.

“This is my second show at CHARLIE SMITH, my first show ‘Absentees’ was September of 2013, and it was similar in that it had singular cabinet cards, but it also had earlier works, in the form of postcards, and etchings that I would draw on – this is a very similar show, as I’ve kept with the cabinet cards, with photography, but there are no postcards, no etchings in this show – and it involves a new development in the works, which is the appropriation of group shots.

With the initial singular cabinet cards I was very interested in concealing things. I studied sculpture at art school, as opposed to painting or photography, and was fascinated by the process of concealing and revealing things. In the first show ‘Absentees’ it was very much about the ‘mask’ – which I would use to conceal the individual identities of these anonymous sitters, these would be really quite opaque masks – I was interested in the masks that we all use really, to conceal ourselves – but that mask is also quite revealing through what we choose to display. What does your mask look like? It’s a way of thinking about it, my mask, your mask, they’d look different, but they still function in a similar way.

The current work has developed very much from that quite definite position of concealment, but I’ve allowed much more of the sitters own features, their faces, to be revealed, it’s not just the hard mask, as there’s more that can be seen, to the point where some of my interventions are really quite minimal, or actually really do have the language of minimalism, for example, these three sitters that have just a white rectangle concealing almost all of their faces. The rectangle is fairly watered-down gouache, as evenly spread over the surface as I can achieve with my brush, and maybe part of that white rectangle is carved away with a cloth as sharply as I can, so you can see part of the original face very clearly, whereas the rest of the rectangle is only semi-opaque. So I’ve enjoyed having more of the sitter coming through, having more of that relationship. This is an opportunity for it to be less about me, less about the artist, taking that narcissistic spotlight off, and to let the sitters come through.

So we have more of these minimalist shapes, where the sitter is very visual, but [in other works] we also have what I call auras really, a kind of glow encompassing the face of the sitter, like a ball of energy that surround their heads. I’m very interested in 19th century ghost stories, M.R. James, is a favourite writer also, I’m fascinated by the scientific and spiritual landscape in which these photographs might have been created, so having something that has a spiritual edge to it, an otherworldly aspect to it, feels very fitting to the original source material. With séances that were newly domesticated, this idea seemed to fit with the domestic nature of these cabinet cards. What were their spiritual beliefs? and even seeing their own images reproduced must of been kind of magical in itself, and so these auras seem quite fitting, and like the masks, one person’s aura might appear different to another person’s in terms of size, shape, and density, depending on the character of the person.

In other works there are geometric other-worldly clouds, semi-concealing some of these sitters. I like how the geometry goes against the softness of the card, the colours stand-out beautifully against the sepia of the albumen print, but still it has this kind of ethereal beauty, in the way the forms kind of hover around the heads and the features of these sitters. I’ve also been creating these ‘flower arrangements’ to conceal the sitters faces, I enjoyed how they would form something more organic in appearance, and a way of concealing something with flowers felt quite sinister. Flowers are fascinating things especially in relation to artworks, there’s a real history of it with vanitas paintings. I quite enjoy this rather sinister edge to these ‘floral suffocations’ of the sitters.

The other major development is the group shots. I wanted essentially, for these characters to begin to inhabit each other’s space, this was quite a bold development for me in the work; the cabinet cards are very isolated – they’re individual, and I think that the one-on-one relationship that the viewer has with them is very personal, special, even humorous – when I put the characters together in the same photographic plane, something else starts to happen, the images become darker, the work has a different energy to it.

I find the source material in the same locations that I find the cabinet cards, in antique shops, often discarded and unloved, but because of the size of them they have had more of a battering over the last hundred years, so they have a different energy in themselves. Some of the groups shots have smaller families, some of them have fifty or sixty people in them, and for me to start working on each of these faces, each of these characters, it’s a different way of working, as these people have a co-habited environment. There’s something about the group, the intimidation of the gang, especially with the pieces that have the features entirely removed, there’s nothing coming through this time, there’s none of the warmth from the glint in the eye – they are completely concealed, replaced by black voids. They’re a hollow frightening mass, turning into something less personal, more confrontational.

Inhabitants: the title of this show comes from H.G. Wells’ Island Of Doctor Moreau, the beasts that live on the island: when you first meet these beasts in the book they are frightening and weird, but the more you look, the more you read, the more you investigate you realise that they’re human – but on the offset, they’re quite confrontational – and I feel that when the you first see these works you think ‘Oh my God, it’s the gang, it’s frightening’ – but it takes more time to get to know them, maybe.

I’ve also been working with family shots. Families are always mixed up – aunties you never see, weird uncles – so it felt like an opportunity to add my intervention to this already awkward photographic environment, and to see how that might look? would they be any more functional or dysfunctional than they already are?, as we all have these quirks and differences, and in that sense I don’t think my intervention alters them that much, everyone has still got their own air of strangeness about them, there own ‘difference’, which is what makes them human.”

Tom Butler: Inhabitants – CHARLIE SMITH, LONDON – until 28 March 2015

Words: Tom Butler with Paul Black. Photo: P A Black, and courtesy of Tom Butler and CHARLIE SMITH LONDON © Artlyst 2015 all rights reserved


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