TIBOR DE NAGY | FEBRUARY 27 - APRIL 12, 2014
Just in case anyone out there is still arguing about form versus function in ceramics, Kathy Butterly’s recent exhibit settles the score: form has won. These 12 small scale—but not diminutive—pieces make the argument cogently. Each sculpture takes the functional vessel as a starting point, but quickly becomes an abstract work with an agenda of its own. In fact, these works cross the border and go over to the other side; they erase the line between sculpture and painting. Color and form fuse to make entirely new, sophisticated and delightful objects, with a level of creative expression and flair rarely seen in contemporary ceramics.
The bases of each work often make historical references, suggesting perhaps a chunky Han-era pedestal or the carved decorative stand of a Ming vase. The pedestals refer to a piece’s beginning, but more importantly, underscore how far each has evolved from being a hand-thrown object. Butterly is not interested in the idea of an idealized symmetrical form, let alone the interpretation of the functional vessel. As each piece is constructed, the artist may leave hints of the perfect forms found in the Met’s collection of classical pottery. But the works never reach that type of fruition. Instead, beauty appears in the guise of imploded, imperfect, and highly idiosyncratic forms. Wabi-sabi has gone completely awry.
These crushed vessels, with their interventions and constructed add-ons, push the envelope to its outer edge; they’re just on the right side of insanity. “Dual 2” (2013) has the most gorgeous little decorative base, glazed in rough gray crackle and rimmed in delicate blue beading. On it, a hand-thrown pink cylinder folds over like a soft, bent pipe. And on top of that sits a long rectangle. From one angle, one can see a hot orange red stream of glaze bleeding down the side of the sculpture. Look from another angle and lo and behold, there’s an entire little city contained in that rectangle, also decorated with crackled, pearlescent glazes, evocative of some sort of purist urban decay. “Scout” (2013) is a tiny cylindrical volume that has been folded completely shut, and then sealed by a narrow handle and rectangular tabs of clay. It seems more personal, like a little purse full of feminine secrets, hermetically sealed. You couldn’t find a collection of more evocative and puzzling forms.
Butterly’s idea of glazing has left concerns with a decorative surface far behind. Her palette is wielded as carefully and originally as in any painting, creating mood, enhancing volume and depth, and conjuring a wide range of references. The sensual pink lining of “Pirette” (2013) offers a vision into a voluptuous orifice. The warm pool of blood-like glaze visible only from the top of “Dare” (2013) evokes an open wound, not so much physical but psychological. The dripping mess flowing down “High Life” (2013) manages to evoke Tang-era San cai (tri-color) glaze and some sort of gruesome, post-global warming, melted-down map of the world at the same time. Color is integral to each piece.
Underpinning these works is deep technical competence. Butterly not only makes delicate porcelain defy gravity at every turn, she also has a justifiable reputation for her painstaking, methodical process of developing glazes. Translucent washes, shocking technicolor yellows, a delicate range of crackle glazes, messy molten lava-like puddles, crystalline geological discoveries—these are all built layer upon layer with often dozens of firings required before the sculpture is complete.
With its fine porcelain, lucid glazes, and nods to history, Butterly’s worldview glances back on centuries of Eastern ceramic traditions but also embraces the postmodern, and has a good laugh along the way. The Zen is gone. What replaces it is an unabashed celebration of contemporary contradiction—not just the control required to throw the original piece and the confidence to destroy it, but the melding of traditional form with the wholly invented, and the contrast of the rough, organic, crunchy crackle glaze with the smooth, sensuous surfaces. It always comes joyously together into a cohesive and utterly original whole that is full of wit and personality. All I have to say: Rock on.
CORINA LARKIN is a painter and writer who lives in New York City. She is also an editor of the Rail's ArtSeen section.