Equestrian Epiphany

Deborah Butterfield deconstructs her beloved horses with a nod to art history

In the early 1970s, when Deborah Butterfield was in the MFA program at UC-Davis, the really cool artists were doing nothing but minimalist and conceptual art.

Except for Butterfield. She was making horse art: drawings and sculptures of one of the most hackneyed subjects in art.

"This was the age of conceptual art. Realistic horses were about the dopiest thing you could be doing," she says. But there was a saving grace. Her art "was so dopey that it was almost cutting-edge."

Butterfield tells the story in a video playing in conjunction with her exhilarating new show at the Tucson Museum of Art. Called simply Deborah Butterfield, the traveling exhibition rounds up a herd of eight larger-than-life metal horses into the museum's wide-open galleries.

Made out of discarded fence posts, chain link and wheelbarrows--or cast in bronze to look like decaying branches and firewood--the steeds gallop across every art boundary you might want to throw in their way.

With their curving necks and thrusting tails, flaring nostrils and powerful backs suspended on long legs, they're unmistakably horses. But they're also found-metal abstractions, visually exciting constructions of twisted tool parts colored in chipped paint and rust. And the bronze pieces are so convincing that even the sophisticated art writers of Foundry magazine mistakenly wrote in a review that they're made of wood.

Playing with multiple levels of reality, somehow, Butterfield's horses are realistic and conceptual all at once.

The 6-foot-tall "Palma" is a 1990 work in found metal that could be a horse with blinders on. Colored in primary yellow, red and blue, amplified by a healthy helping of rust, its angular body parts pay homage to the discarded agricultural tools that gave it life. (Butterfield devotes a half-acre of her Montana ranch to a metal-parts graveyard, divided by color into a giant palette.) But this horse also nods to art history: It conjures up a Picasso construction, and Butterfield even gave it a Picasso-esque title.

Butterfield jokes in the video that she was predestined for her horse obsession. "I was born on the day of the Kentucky Derby, when a horse named Ponder won. There's a reason for all this! It's not really my fault."

For years, she says, she got teased for drawing horses. But in grad school, she had a creative crisis and concluded: "I love horses. I have to do this."

By casting off convention and doing what she wanted, the artist has become a celebrated sculptor, successful both with lovers of contemporary and Western art. At the contentious Tucson Museum of Art, where cowboy and contemporary patrons barely speak, her work beguiles both sides, the proof being the huge crowd at her opening-night lecture. In a marvelous bit of serendipity, TMA's new director, Robert Knight, curated this show in his former post at the Yellowstone Art Museum, well before he got the position here.

Butterfield's work first got critical attention at the Whitney Biennial in 1979; since then, it's been collected and commissioned by museums around the country. One site-specific commission was as far afield as Israel. The earliest work was horsey but organic, made of sticks and mud. And the pieces were small, more canine in size than equine.

A few of these early works are corralled in a separate small room. The three horses of "Three Horses," from 1980, are fenced in by a cloud of chicken wire blackened by mud, their shapes barely discernible. Butterfield said she switched to metal when she got tired of these fragile pieces falling apart. But the horses also look like they're yearning to break free.

A 1985 piece, "The Derby Horse," a nod at her birthday, is a step on the way to the liberated abstractions of more recent years. It's cast bronze, battered and bent, and colored a nice warm brown. But it still has a skin. It's a defined object. Yet to come are the open-air horses, less sculptures than 3-D drawings scrawled into space.

Butterfield evolved today's complicated working methods gradually. Her faux wood pieces--like "Hawaii (Big Island)," an abstracted image of a reclining mare--are cast into bronze in a process so complex you almost need a road map to understand how they're made. The artist makes the wooden sculptures primarily at home, and they get cast at a foundry in Walla Walla, Wash. The wooden works are documented in photographs, then gently taken apart.

Once each stick and branch is reproduced in bronze, they're put back together to mimic the original wood sculpture. Butterfield can change her mind at this point and re-position the bronze pieces; when she's satisfied, she uses patina and pigment to mimic the lovely pale grays and charcoals of old wood.

The belly of "Hawaii," from 2001, is a thicket of sticks and its neck a graceful slope. It looks like a horse about to melt into the earth--or a pile of sticks about to succumb to rot. But like "Palma," it also makes reference to art history, Butterfield said, to the long tradition of the reclining female nude.

Butterfield's majestic mature works evoke huge horses in all their rippling power. You half expect them to start snorting or to break into a gallop or to rear up on their hind legs. At about 8 feet tall, the tallest piece in the show, "Forgetting the Other," from 2002, towers over a viewer; even its legs soar to 5 feet. Made of welded found metal, with flecks of white paint peeling off the rust, "Forgetting" zigzags between twisted metal posts and thin air.

Her old minimalist pals would love it.

"I try to see how little I can do and still make it look like a horse," she says.

The artist keeps about 30 horses on her ranch, 10 of her own and 20 that she boards. To her a horse "represents an innocent being that has decided to be with us." And with a life span shorter than a human's, a horse--and horse art--can encapsulate the whole tragic cycle of life and death.

"Horses are so big; there's something so dramatic about a horse's death," she said in her talk. "Horses die. Friends and parents die. Anything you love, you risk losing."

The artist takes care of her animals, grooming them, wrapping their legs and feeding them; she rides every day. She practices dressage, giving commands to the horse via subtle signals.

"Making art is like riding a horse," she noted. "You have to know what you want it to do. But you also allow the horse to be itself, to be its own joy."

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