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BENJAMIN BUTLER

some trees


For although it cannot 
be said with mathematical precision, it is true as a rule that everybody loves their grandmother. 


vanessa place

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LANDSCAPE/PAINTING barry schwabsky

I

was surprised at first, and then not so surprised after all, when Benjamin Butler told me that the origins of the work he has been making over about the past decade lie in a request from his grandmother: that he paint her a landscape. Surprised, because grandmothers are so little a part of the narrative of contemporary—just like mothers, I might add, but only more so. Or maybe it would be better to say that mothers and grandmothers are an only implicit part of the narrative of modern art, which says that you have become an artist when you have understood that you must make something that your mom or your granny just wouldn’t understand. I always think of a passage in Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, Lawrence Weschler’s wonderful 1982 book about the California light-and-space artist Robert Irwin. I’ve never really been a fan of Irwin’s work but I like Weschler’s book for a number of reasons, among which is that it is the only book concerning a contemporary artist (at least that I know of) for which the author has interviewed the artist’s mother. And the passage in it that lives most vividly in the memory is one in which Mrs. Irwin tells the author how “a friend of mine from church said, ‘You know, Goldie, I’d give anything if your son would paint me a pretty seascape.’ And I said, ‘Margaret, Bob wouldn’t paint you a seascape if you paid him a million dollars—no way!’” 3


Trees in the Forest, 2005 oil on canvas 48 x 72 in; 122 x 183 cm

Now that mother had got hip to contemporary art. Whether or not she really understood what her son was doing and why, she at least knew that in principle it consisted of the kind of things her friends could not fathom, and which she had only come to appreciate by way of maternal pride. For artists of Irwin’s generation, however much they had resisted the critical strictures of Clement Greenberg (and Greenberg would certainly never have countenanced an art like Irwin’s), they shared with the critic a credence in the incompatibility, even the essential contrariety between high art and the common culture—between avant-garde and kitsch. Modern art was not meant to create consensus but to sow dissensus. It was something like a religious calling, dividing the happy few from the philistines like the faithful from the profane. Like Jesus himself, the modern artist could well proclaim—in the words of Matthew—“I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-inlaw against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. He who loves

Left: Untitled Tree in Summer, 2006 oil on canvas 20 x 16 in; 51 x 41 cm Center: Thirteen Trees (A Pastel Forest), 2006 oil on canvas 24 x 30 in; 61 x 76 cm Right: Dark Tree (Blue, Green, Brown), 2010 colored pencil and oil on canvas 76 x 51 in; 193 x 129.5 cm

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father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.” Art would separate its devotee from his or her “natural” family in order to leave one alone in the solitude of its calling—the solitude of a Cézanne, a Beckett—or at best bring one into the fold of the new, elective family of those who shared the same vocation; one thinks of the intense communion that some of the Abstract Expressionists spoke of experiencing in the early days of The Club. Or as Mrs. Irwin put it, “’Margaret, you have to be committed to this, you have to understand it, you can’t just go in there cold and expect to understand something like that.’ I didn’t have the foggiest notion, and here I was explaining it to her!” Of course what I am pointing to is a general tendency, and there are or at least may appear to be exceptions to this tendency of modernist art to constitute a radical separation, to “introduce a rupture in society not reducible to any previously existing social differences,” as Boris Groys has well put it. Most obvious among these apparent exceptions was Pop art, which in the face of abstraction, of Minimalism, of conceptual art—

all of them more or less rebarbative to the wider public—proposed an art whose subjects came from ordinary life and which everyone could understand. Andy Warhol painted the Campbell’s Soup cans from which, as a boy, his mother had served him lunch every day. And yet even in Pop, there is a coldness, an internal distance between the artist and his motif, that formalizes it and thereby differentiates it from the so-called sentimentality of popular art. This brings me, by the way, to another thing that surprised me when I first spoke with Butler: his telling me that Pop art and Minimalism were his primary influences. I wouldn’t have thought so. I can see all sorts of reference points in Butler’s paintings, from Gustav Klimt and Piet Mondrian at the beginning of the last century to Maureen Gallace and Peter Doig at the end of it. I see a particular affinity with the roots of abstraction in Symbolist painting, and with certain sometimes rather obscure currents in the art of central and Eastern Europe—think of Frantisek Kupka or, in the present, Leon Tarasewicz. But as I try to imagine what Butler took from Pop or Minimalism, I can see him imbibing what they had in common with

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other twentieth-century art and not what distinguished them: above all, their emphasis on formal concision, yes, but not their fascination with the mechanization of the image (Pop) and of the object (Minimalism). And yet, and yet… even if I can’t make out much of a Pop heritage in Butler’s paintings, there is something about them that does call Andy Warhol to mind, now that I think of it. It’s not in the work’s formal or stylistic aspects or in its subjects, but elsewhere—not even exactly in what one would call an attitude. It has to do with the way Warhol’s work never says no. You can bring to it any kind of hermeneutic bias and never find yourself contradicted. Look to Warhol as a thoroughgoing materialist and his work will agree with you. Look at him through the lens of his religious upbringing and it will answer. Put the emphasis on subject matter or formalism, decoration or critique, you can’t go wrong. Something similar could be said of Butler. Take him as an abstractionist or as a representationalist, his art is good either way. Whether you see him as a detached and canny commentator on art history and the vicissitudes of its styles and conventions or as an almost naïve sensualist intoxicated with the fluidity of paint 6

and the beauty of color, the work proves you right. If you think formal order is key, the paintings will nod in agreement, but the same if instead you’re inclined to see evidence of a spiritual longing that flickers through the screen of the material world like the light of dawn through a dense stand of trees. And speaking of trees, if you prefer to think Butler is really fascinated by their capacity to serve as an all-embracing metaphor, well, right you are if you think you are, but if you want to suggest that for him the tree is merely a nominal device on which to hang a painting, that’s ok too. Is he a starry-eyed transcendentalist or an old-fashioned workman fitting forms together like a carpenter with a job of work to do? Yes, and yes, as far as the paintings go. No valid interpretation refused. Just like Warhol. Alright then, you might say, so these remarkably labile paintings can accept widely varying, even contradictory meanings. Doesn’t that mean they lack conviction? The answer is that paintings carry conviction when they are painted with conviction. And Butler doesn’t paint like he’s hedging his bets. He may change his mind about what he wants a painting to do in the course of making it, but what you finally see on the wall will feel


Left: Ocean Tree, 2002 oil on canvas 20 x 16 in; 51 x 41 cm Center: Eighteen Trees in an Autumn Forest, 2005 oil on canvas 48 x 72 in; 122 x 183 cm Right: Matterhorn, 2001 oil on canvas 20 x 16 in; 51 x 41 cm

decisive. The visual experience Butler offers is always vividly specific—only, what you make of it is up to you. What I make of it is this. There are artists who are primarily concerned with how their work is going to be read—call them the semioticians; others, with what their work is (the ontologists, let’s say). (What makes things confusing and interesting is that the semioticians are not usually indifferent to the look of their work any more than the ontologists are unconcerned with its meaning.) If you are inclined to read Butler’s work for its semiotics, nothing in it will stop you. But for me, he’s one of the ontologists. And for that very reason I see him as neither a materialist nor a transcendentalist, a formalist nor a mystic. He self-evidently does love the fluidity of paint and the beauty of color, but it would be going too far to assert that he loves them for their own sake just as it would if one said that he loves them as clues to an immaterial realm beyond the immediate reach of the senses. I’d be willing to bet that he doesn’t know exactly why he loves them, and that this not-knowing is part of the reason painting fascinates him. The paintings embody feelings that have no other name than the paintings themselves,

and to try to name them is just as false as to deny them

and place a claim to value on brute visual fact. Maybe the namelessness of these feelings has something to do, oddly enough, with the fact Butler was able to imagine painting a landscape for his grandmother. “Margaret, you have to be committed to this” means you have to be committed to a meaning, a history, a vision of the past from which a work of art emerges and the future toward which it leads. To some extent, the very success of modern art has made its history more of a common holding and its future more diffuse, and this is probably one reason why a serious artist today is less embattled than in the past. But there’s more to it than that. If feeling is form’s reason, well, that changes everything. To recognize a feeling does not require any commitment in advance—although it may impose one in retrospect. No degree of sophistication or of naïveté is in itself sufficient either to prevent it or to compel it. Grandmothers, strangers—anyone can share it, though not everyone will. 7


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