Tom Butler: Inhabitants – CHARLIE SMITH, LONDON – Appropriations And Ectoplasmic Abstractions

Tom Butler

CHARLIE SMITH LONDON presents Tom Butler with his second one person exhibition 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, 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 features of the sitter, or even excavates their features. Butler’s painting is instinctive and owes part of its practice to sculptural thinking.

As the quantity of works have grown, the artist began perceiving the subjects he was working into as a population. The oeuvre became an ever-expanding citizenry, with Butler imagining an environment for his creations. The title of the exhibition is ‘Inhabitants’ taken from H.G. Wells’ ‘Island of Dr Moreau’, where a victim of a shipwreck is rescued and brought to the shores of a mysterious island populated with beast-men who are created by the Doctor in scientific experiments. Wells’ island itself is unnamed, as is its strange population, who are only described in the book as: ‘the inhabitants’.

Butler alludes to the transformation of the mundane into the fantastical, the artist masks his subjects, altering their identity, or removing it entirely if not for the surrounding environment and the subjects attire. The works remain nostalgically linked to their origins with the original image still visible in part. The works are loaded with historic associations, but also partially re-contextualised. The appropriation of the image and its re-working serves to re-purpose the sitter of the portrait, alluding to the Victorian freak shows of old, and specific painterly practices simultaneously.

The artist creates strange creatures from 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. The gouache often alludes to some sort of ectoplasmic discharge reminiscent of the Victorian past-time of the seance. Butler’s works are highly reminiscent of Victorian ectoplasm photographs. The use of the word is in fact very fitting for the artist’s practice – from the Greek ektos, meaning “outside”, and plasma, meaning “something formed or molded”.

The artist’s paint sometimes seems excreted as a gauze-like substance, as if the sitters have become spiritual entities draping this substance over their non-physical bodies, enabling them to interact in a new physical universe. Butler’s painterly process is an ectoplasmic affair, forming strange, and sometimes sinister associations.

With this series ‘The Inhabitants’ Butler has introduced group stills, working into multiple subjects, forming relationships and pairings. The artist plays instinctively with the group dynamic, causing the association with the freak show, and Dr. Moreau’s island of ‘inhabitants’ to become heightened. Working from the initial dynamic of the image, Butler integrates his abstracted characters or isolates them accordingly.

In fact the precise nature of the Butler’s practice places the id of the artist as an intrinsic element of the work. With Richard Prince as an example: we have the appropriation of the image using the artist’s Re-photography – Prince is attempting to place himself in the objective position. He is artist as viewer born from artist ‘re-viewer’. The ambiguity of his intention as the artist allows an objectivity from the perspective of the viewer. Prince does not close down the meaning of the work but instead there is a deliberate obfuscation of intention.

But by re-working existing images of real people from history, Butler imposes his decision upon the pre-existing image, forever changing it. The initial decision is one of will, and the intention of creating a new value. A subjective re-positioning of meaning imposed by the artist.

With Butler’s groups the viewer experiences an alienation as the congregation is rendered – through exquisite and intricate brush-strokes – without a collective or individual identity, their separateness is wholly apparent – from the viewer, and indeed from each other, we have lost their meaning, and the group becomes an ‘un-collective’ and dissociative, detached, and visually hallucinatory.

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

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


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