Monday, May 14, 2012

Horsing around

Last week I attended an artist lecture at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, as part of the unveiling of two major sculptures by Deborah Butterfield.

Deborah Butterfield, Danuta (reclining) and Burnt Pine (standing), 2008

Butterfield constructs horses from scraps of wood, metal, machinery, twigs and/or mud, then often has them cast in bronze, as the two new Speed acquisitions.  I've seen other Butterfield horses in other venues, and have always loved them.  With miscellaneous materials she sketches horses that are practically alive.

Not surprisingly, she is a horse lover outside the studio as well, as an accomplished dressage rider for most of her life.

Deborah Butterfield, Woodrow, 1988 -- Walker Art Center sculpture garden, Minneapolis

Butterfield was not the only artist to speak at the lecture; two local artists, Chris Radtke and Gaela Erwin, who also are horsewomen joined her in a discussion of how horses have informed their art.

All three said that the painstaking process of training a horse to respond to your tiniest suggestion is similar to establishing communion with your art materials, so that when you need a given response it will come naturally.

"Dressage is so much about process and a long, long relationship with the tiny details," Radtke said. (Like art.)

In fact, Radtke showed a copy of the score sheet used to judge dressage competitions, and suggested that the different categories are equally applicable to evaluating art:

precise transition
smooth execution
elasticity  (though I'm not sure what this means for either 
           horses or art...)
ease of movement

The artists were asked how important they think the "back story" is -- information provided to audiences about the materials, inspiration or viewpoint in a piece of art.  Butterfield's first response was to say not at all.  "Art has to work on some primal level," she said, "not so much through your head or your eyes as through your gut."  She said she hates the modern trend in museums where so much information is provided, especially through interactive displays where the viewer has to press buttons, open doors or otherwise play games rather than simply looking at the art.

"The power of the object is transformative," she said.  "People have forgotten how to talk to a stone," how to understand and relate to mass and volume and weight.

But Radtke disagreed, mentioning her activities as a gallery owner and serving on civic committees on public art.  "Our time is a time about ideas," she said.  "I've seen how people start to respond once they understand the ideas."  She said she favors more text and explanation; "people can choose whether to read it or not."

Even though I have no particular relationship with horses I found the discussion provocative.  And I'm happy that I'll be able to visit Danuta and Burnt Pine forever; when the Speed's major renovation project is over, they will be permanently installed in a new outdoor sculpture court, there for us even after closing time.


  1. These are fabulous! Somewhat reminiscent of the puppet horses in "War Horse" at Lincoln Center in NYC, an incredible production.

  2. Thank you for another thought provoking post. I always learn so much from you. Thanks again.

  3. Love the sculptures. I enjoy going to the PepsiCo sculpture gardens not far from my home; there's something about these oversized pieces that capture me in a different way than art on a way. Maybe it's the added influence of a natural setting?

    At any rate, there have been times when I've benefitted from curatorial information about a piece of art (it was great to listen to curatorial comments at the Georgia O'Keefe retrospective, for example) and other times when I haven't needed it / wanted it at all. I guess that means I haven't made up my mind yet on the subject.

  4. Meant to say "art on a wall" in the previous comment, NOT "art on a way".