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Toronto
Terence Dick
Paul Butler at Division Gallery | Communicating Vessels at Blackwood Gallery
April 29, 2014

It's not surprising that Paul Butler is now a curator – in addition to being an artist and a former gallerist – because so much, if not all, of his work is about selection and framing. The foundation for his process is collage, and I recently heard Micah Lexier call Butler's famous collage parties an incredibly liberating experience. There is something about gathering pre-existing materials and rearranging them on the page that gives everyone the permission to be creative. When an artist limits himself to a programmatic and uniform erasure and combination of certain elements – as Butler does (no Wangechi Mutu advanced class cut'n'paste mastery here) – it can leave the impression that anyone can do this. Running this risk is a game of discipline and stubbornness.



Paul Butler, Untitled, 2014, inkjet print

Looking through his new works on display at Division Gallery's Toronto venue, I kept thinking about Richard Prince (not simply because I had just read the text of this lecture about his seminal Spiritual America piece). Both artists have a vampiric relationship with visual culture whereby they claim their victims with yet another anyone-can-do-this technique: re-photography. By taking a picture of their only slightly manipulated images, they make a claim of authorship while also opening up a conduit (a transfusion line?) to the rest of the world. While this might on first glance seem radical and transgressive, they are just more upfront about acknowledging their suppliers. And whereas Prince trains his unblinking eye on the various people in his images (eg. a preteen Brooke Shields), Butler edits the ostensible subject out, leaving only the background, which, truth be told, is just another, and in fact the first, frame.

As for this current exhibition, I found it clever and formulaic (which is more of a description than a judgment), but there was no sense of struggle and in the end it left me cold. His series of Artforum gallery ads with the texts cleanly removed may end up as quirky geometric abstractions, but are too much tied to the insularity of the art world to be anything other than navel gazing, which, I'll admit, can be a turn on if this is the kind of navel you're into. And while his emptied out and layered silhouette portraits populate urban streets with fading phantoms that engage for the moment, all I really want to see are his duct taped landscapes of yesteryear.



Iain Baxter&, Rebecca's Bagged Place, Raven Row, 2013, C-print (photo: Marcus J. Leith)

A curatorial impulse also unites the artists in Corrie Jackson's Master of Visual Studies exhibition Communicating Vessels at the University of Toronto's Blackwood Gallery; however, these four Canadians are focused on selecting objects instead of images. The homegrown godfather to this Conceptual feint is Iain Baxter& (he of the appropriated landscape) and his contribution is photo-documentation of apartments with every item and every surface sealed in plastic and then offered up for viewing. This framing of the real is bookended by Roula Partheniou's slightly less than real cabinet of everyday objects that also represent the things in the world – particularly those found in the realm of domesticity. Her objects are objects as objects rather than functional goods that fulfill their purpose. As such they serve as signs for themselves, like building blocks for a banal existence. Similarly banal objects are theorized up the ying-yang in two video works by Judy Radul that try too hard to do what Partheniou does with ease. And then Luis Jacob treads a middle ground with an actual collection of vessels that manages the clever trick of demanding interpretation by hardly saying anything. That they are part of a ho-hum performance with naked folk, which is also documented in photographs, diminishes their intrigue somewhat. However, I'm adept at forgetting what I'm supposed to see and generally manage to find my way on my own. Good thing.


Division Gallery: http://www.galeriedivision.com/toronto/exhibitions
Paul Butler: Still Active continues until May 29.

Blackwood Gallery: http://blackwoodgallery.ca/index.html
Communicating Vessels continues until May 11.


Terence Dick is a freelance writer living in Toronto. His art criticism has appeared in Canadian Art, BorderCrossings, Prefix Photo, Camera Austria, Fuse, Mix, C Magazine, Azure, and The Globe and Mail. He is the editor of Akimblog. You can follow his quickie reviews and art news announcements on Twitter @TerenceDick.

 

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Posted by Terence Dick, on 2014-04-30 22:28:36
 
I'm not dismissing Butler's art with the argument that anyone could do it. I'm saying it - like that of many artists such as Prince or Barnett Newman - risks leaving such an impression, but rises above it through discipline and the stubbornness to see things through to the end. At least when it works. Which it doesn't in this exhibition.


Posted by Lisa, on 2014-04-30 18:06:54
 
Oh no, Terence! Not the old, "anyone could make this" argument...