The Canadian Art Database

Terrence Heath

Image Space / Space Image
K.J. Butler at the WAG

Arts Manitoba, Vol. 1 #3-4, Winter 1978
[ 742 words ]

The paintings by Jack Butler at the Winnipeg Art Gallery repel — repel in a number
of interesting ways.

They repel the viewer by colour. In the big paintings, the colours are not allowed to work on their own terms by contrast, complement or propinquity. These paintings abandon the smooth, even-colouring of the field painters. Butler's colours cannot be dissociated from their form and the forms are thrusting, savage (or, at least, highly emotional) and assaulting. Blacks, greys, blood reds predominate, but even gentle blues are not allowed to have gentle effect. They too have been highly activated so that even when they are blurred reflections like the right hand canvas of Venus I, they are charged with the disquieting energy of the central image. In the smaller works, there are a number of coloured pattern pieces, mostly of the Arctic tundra. Here, the colour has been held in check, made to conform to a preassigned space and the effect is less assertive than in the larger pieces.

Butler's paintings repel by their subject matter: an erect penis turns into a death head; skeletons grow out of reclining bodies; even the Venus image, legs spread wide, does not invite or seduce, but splits like a burst seed in the great spaces of the surrounding canvas. Butler asserts that the skull in many cultures represents re-birth, not death, but the westerner coming to this western painting is overwhelmed by the traditional signs and colours of death. Not a receding, peaceful death, no sorrow or lamentation, but rather an exploding death of passions which challenges and threatens the viewer. One is reminded of the late medieval mundi portrayals of corpses awaiting the resurrection, alive with the worms of their bodily corruption.

But, most interesting of all, the paintings repel by the use of space and image. These are not paintings to look at but paintings to look away from and inward into one's self. They leave a strangely lingering retinal image that seems to detach the image from the painting and substitute the space of mind for the space of canvas. They do not feast the mind, but send the mind off searching out its own food. A difficult experience to describe. A part of the impact of the large paintings is the way they are hung in the gallery so that they surround the viewer. The images are held in their spaces and yet re-inforce one another like multiple images — like images of the viewer caught in their space, legs spread, vulnerable, protected only by being suspended. They hold the viewer away and fast.

When the viewer tears himself away from the large paintings, he can see in the smaller works the development of the central image through a number of stages. The smaller drawings and paintings have obviously been chosen to give a retrospective look at the development of the larger works. They don't. The development of the image itself is not terribly important, when the overwhelming difference in the large works is the presence of protective, suspensive space. There seems to be no more retrospective a presence of that than there is an anticipation of the scale of the later paintings.

I can't help thinking that Butler means to repel the viewer, or, at least, to make the viewer always ill at ease. For example, even the most 'painterly' of the large works, Venus XII (Her Outstretched Limbs), disturbs the viewer by making it almost impossible to find the right distance from the painting from which to view it comfortably. The detail wash demands a close viewing: the central image, disappearing behind the paint, pushes the viewer back. The small blue brush strokes have one focal distance: the bold, smeared strokes another. This double focal distance can also be seen in Arctic Willow Pond where the cutouts set up a different visual demand from the small detailed photographs.

And yet, there is a reflective, peaceful centre, one says to oneself. The very repulsion is not total. It is a pushing away only so far; like a reversal of religious chanting, the form is first distancing, then close.

Arts Manitoba, Vol. 1 #3-4, Winter 1978

Text: © Terrence Heath. All rights reserved.

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