ART REVIEW: "Deborah Butterfield: New Sculptures"-Zolla/Lieberman Gallery, Chicago

Deborah Butterfield’s New Sculptures collection was recently on display at Chicago’s Zolla/Lieberman Gallery, displaying the sheer power of her craft and artistry, while investigating how life and art—as well as interior and exterior spaces—can intersect. 

The sculptor is best known for her metal (often bronze) larger-than-life sculptures of horses that simulate driftwood. Butterfield’s process includes creating an armature of metal, then carefully fitting selected pieces of wood in just the right spot on the armature. She then casts each piece of wood in bronze and attaches the resulting form to the armature, carefully painting each portion to resemble wood, in color and in texture.
Bristlecone, 2014.  Cast bronze.

Her craftsmanship notwithstanding, the exhibition’s overall effect was impressive. The horses appear skeletal, yet somehow vital, seeming to oscillate as one moves past the undulating, twisting forms. The work’s component parts echo muscles, sinew, and veins, as if Butterfield has turned the horses inside out, anomalously revealing their inner workings and guts in this otherwise pristine gallery space. Her sculptures seem to straddle a fine line between life and death. And yet the horses project a vital energy, remnants of the once-living animals they portray.

Most of the gallery’s horses—some standing, some recumbent–appear to pose proudly in the space, an impressive feat given their airy delicacy and thin legs. Highlights among the sculptures include Cascade, a fluid, seated stallion; Honalo, a smaller work with tiny ‘leaves’ attached to several branches—a charming, delicate work–and Bristlecone, located in its own alcove at the back of the gallery. Bristlecone is particularly dazzling: the ‘twigs’ and ‘branches’ that make up its graceful form are dotted with “’knots,’ lending to it an electrifying effect, as if all of the neurons inside the horse are on display, firing away furiously.

Bringing these rough-hewn ‘driftwood’ horses inside the clean, white gallery serves as a playful juxtaposition of well-ordered interior space and the outside world. It is also significant to note that these creatures, so lively and statuesque, only simulate life, relying on a medium, once dead and forgotten, to give them form and new ‘life.’
Honalo, 2014.  Cast bronze.

New Sculptures, then, serves as a representation of the process of art-making itself, since art, after all, is an imitation of life. The exhibit represents both life and death, and how the artist’s process and choices grapple with—and thrive—because of these juxtapositions. Butterfield’s longstanding interest in portraying horses not only continues to address themes of life, death, and interior and exterior spaces, but also produces a visually satisfying testament to the power of craftsmanship in an era where art is increasingly digitized and mass-produced.


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