One of the highlights of the Chelsea opening night last week was Deborah Butterfield’s striking sculptures of horses, apparently made out of drift wood or ‘found’ wood. This was the type of show where people entered the gallery and immediately said, “Wow, this is amazing. How did she do that?” That’s important, of course. The artist has to arrest the viewer visually, first, before the person will stop and begin to engage a piece. If your pieces look boring, people won’t stop and look. Butterfield’s work is so ‘wowing’ on just a purely visual level, that virtually everyone who saw the show stopped and thought about what she was doing and discussed the work with the folks they were with.
The fact that the horses seemed to be made out of drift wood or wood that had fallen from trees was fascinating to most viewers. Actually Butterfield does use this wood initially to create the sculpture, but since wood decays so easily, she casts the sculpture from the wood and then burns the wood away with molten bronze, creating a permanent sculpture. But it looks like the real thing. I didn’t realize the sculptures were bronze until I went back a second time.
Now, I have to confess, even though I’m a city guy, I’m a sucker for horses and love all things horses. To me, the horse is a symbol of transition. By transition, I mean transition within our inner reality as well as transition in our external reality. Traditionally, symbolically, the horse represents what gets you from one (rotten) place to another (better) place. It takes you from a place of turmoil and conflict to your own hearth. It leads you into and out of battle; it helps you escape, engage in some adventure or go home.
The horse has, in fact, been one of the most important symbols or images in the history of Western art. St. George kills that dragon while riding horseback and who doesn’t love Rembrandt’s emaciated horse at the Frick, selflessly carrying that Polish soldier toward his quest? We see a look of dogged resolve on the head of the horse, despite the emaciated state of its body. It’s as if the inner strength or inner qualities of the horse, and not just its outer strength, is what makes the horse such a potent symbol. The resolve or determination of the horse is contrasted with the calm sense of command and confidence of the rider. More than anything, Butterfield is able to capture and convey this same inner strength of the horse, through her work, using dead wood.
So the big question is, why did this artist make horses out of found pieces of wood? We can say that the horse is a symbol of transition in Western art. We can also say that these horses are a type of symbol of ‘freedom’ or inner strength, especially since they seem to be wild horses. What I liked was the fact that Butterfield uses discarded, dead wood to convey the strength and life of these animals. Wood, although ‘dead’, possesses potential combustible energy. So the horse represents movement and freedom while wood can represent latent, potential energy – so the artist is combining the two most salient elements of horses and wood to convey movement, transition, freedom, and the captured potential for energy possessed in each piece. We get a sense of a composite creation that incorporates the concept of transition and the potential explosion of energy at the same time.
When you look at these pieces, it’s uncanny that the artist was able to take random pieces of branches and fit them so perfectly into the form of a horse. It’s almost as if this was meant to be and that these discarded and fallen branches should be shaped into horses. So I’d encourage you to drop by Danese/Corey and just experience these horses. These sculptures have a presence that affects you immediately and that will stimulate and engage you on many different levels.