TOWARDS THE UNDESIRABLES (STARRING ALAN BUTLER & SNOW WHITE)
By JAMES MERRIGAN | APRIL 22, 2018
“I am going to explain this to you very simply. All human creatures are divided into two groups. There are pirates, and there are farmers. Farmers build fences and control territory. Pirates tear down fences and cross borders. There are good pirates and bad pirates, good farmers and bad farmers, but there are only pirates and farmers.”
Dave Hickey, Pirates and Farmers, 2013.
THE NARCISSISTIC SPELL WAS CAST; THE DAILY JAUNT TO THE MIRROR TO ASK 'WHO IS THE FAIREST ONE OF ALL?' TOOK ON A WICKED ROUTINE.
I HAVE KNOWN ARTIST ALAN BUTLER FOR A DECADE. I exhibited alongside him at TBG+S in 2009 and the RHA in 2011. I have written reviews of his work. We have invited each other to participate in art projects. We have talked over the phone. From afar I have always admired his ability to wield technology in one hand while in the other plunder the virtual and physical world with audacity. He lives up to one of art critic Dave Hickey’s “absolutes”, that the world is divided between pirates and farmers. You don't have to read between the lines that Hickey thinks himself a pirate, and if you have ever read him you will agree he is. Butler is also a pirate, and a good one at that. And being a pirate I have always wondered how his art would play out for him professionally if and when the Irish art scene caught up with what he has been doing for the last 10 years. But it seems the art scene has, following what is surely considered now and into the future one of Butler’s masterworks ON EXACTITUDE IN SCIENCE shown at IMMA last year, a two-screen video installation featuring a synchronised presentation of Godfrey Reggio's KOYAANISQATSI (1983) alongside Butler’s frame-for-fame copy filtered through the video-game landscape of Grand Theft Auto). And then there's his current solo exhibition in the Digital Gallery at Visual Carlow where he explores the same Grand Theft Auto “subject through less photographic means... using sculpture, print, video and installation to delve into the relationship between technology and representation”. And not to mention next month’s opening of WHEN FACTS DON’T MATTER at St. Carthage Hall, Lismore Castle.
THE WATER HEAVED TOWARD THE SHORE, WAVES BUILDING AND BUILDING LIKE A LOST CIVILISATION OF MIRRORS BEFORE THE SLINKY SIMULACRUM CRASHED ONTO THE BEACH IN BITS AND PIECES OF YOU AND ME.
For the last decade Butler has been perennially present in Dublin’s art scene (except for one year when he ignored calls to exhibit in Ireland). In chime with the contemporary artworld but ahead of his time in Irish art terms, Irish curators and especially Irish galleries have been generally cautious – Rayne Booth, Paul McAree, Ormston House, and more recently Green On Red Gallery the exceptions – buttressing his patch-eyed repurposing of present-day culture with other artists in group shows that tend to make farmers out of artists and pirates out of curators. In the early years you might come across Butler’s work hanging out on the fringe of the grazing herd, a badly camouflaged carnivore that might kill you with vinyl and technology if you entered fully into the digital fray.
SNOW WHITE PULLED UP THE GOLD HEM OF HER BLUE AND RED DRESS AS IF THE SCENE BEFORE HER WERE REAL. SHE RELAXED INTO THE ARCHES OF HER FEET SO SHE COULD FEEL THE COLD GALLERY FLOOR BENEATH.
My first experience of Butler’s work in a solo presentation was at TBG+S in 2010. One video work in particular presented something different: Some Kind of Agit Prop Monster (2010). Butler had performed a pirate job on a promotional trailer for the movie Sex and the City 2. I stood there watching it over and over and over again mesmerised by his seamless hijack of something that seemed too present-day-mainstream-ugh for a pirate to plunder. I immediately went back home and wrote about it, which became the first review on billionjournal.com.
SNOW WHITE SHIVERED, IMAGINING A CHANDELIER IN A LIGHTLESS ROOM BELOW. SHE WISHED HERSELF INTO THAT DARK ROOM, INTO THOSE DARK PRISMS OF THAT DARK CHANDELIER, INTO THAT SO-SO SUBLIME OBJECT CREATED WITH EYES AND LIGHT AND VANITY IN MIND.
While the farmers among us stood back and considered images as mere surface, Butler hiked up his rubber gloves early on and went fishing in the plumbing of representation. This was no Victorian haunting or necrophiliac homage to some dead artist; Butler was possessing contemporary culture while it was still alive. Some Kind of Agit Prop Monster was violently alive and expensively talented. It was ecstatic viewing – when a warm breath becomes a hot gasp. I could see and feel from the work that Butler had fun subverting the material, so I had fun watching it. The secret labour could be acknowledged but was hidden through technical precision and nerd know-how, so my experience was a full experience. I laughed. I wondered. Everything else by Butler in that solo show (in comparison) was just farming. Some Kind of Agit Prop Monster exorcised a childhood memory of mine involving Carol Anne Freeling communicating with the white noise on the TV screen before she entered the ghost in the shell. This was surgical. This was Real possession. This was Real plumbing.
THE ROOM IN WHICH SHE STOOD WAS AS DARK AS HER EBONY HAIR. SO DARK THAT HER ROSE RED LIPS AND SNOW WHITE SKIN BECAME MANNEQUIN-LIKE IN THE WANDERING DARKNESS.
I think of Andy Warhol and Sherrie Levine when I think of Alan Butler’s hijacking of culture. At Visual Carlow Butler tips his cap to Levine by projecting the twin image the American artist's rephotographed Walker Evans’ portrait of Alabama sharecropper, Allie Mae Burroughs. This image is found in visual flux on a freestanding sculptural partition, flickering like some temporal gateway from the Original Star Trek through which the landing party and the 1960's TV audience was transported anywhere from down-and-out L.A. to Hellenistic Greece.
Warhol comes to mind here because of the relationship between production, invisible labour and representation in Butler's work. While American artists in the 1960s were fast asleep dreaming up tomorrow in the studio, Warhol was up all night on Speed – doing, doing, doing. But Warhol’s all-nighters was never visible in the work. Like Warhol Butler has always been a producer; unlike Warhol labour is very visible in his time-consuming ink drawings and cut-out vinyls. But Butler's production has never been just about the limitation of a medium, unlike e.g. the painter; or how far you can take the limitations of the medium before it collapses, controls you, becomes you, or you it. No. Butler has always looked at the medium front, back, sides and inside. Like a cat or odd child, he is an artist that flips the cockroach on its back to see what is inside the fleshy underbelly. Butler is not just a pirate, he's a mechanic, and he's got hot skills along with a burning curiosity.
LIGHT-FILLED IMAGES AND INCANTATION GREET SNOW WHITE FROM CATER-CORNER DIRECTIONS. ONE BIG EDIFICE PROFFERS BOTH EXIT AND ENTRANCE WITH NO INVITE OR ESCAPE. THE IMAGES SEEM FAR AWAY, AS IF GAZED UPON FROM ATOP A WELL WHERE A PRINCESS MIGHT SHED HER TEARS.
The cliché that artists end up making a variation of the same work for a lifetime is probably true in most cases. In Butler’s case, born at a time when humans did not swipe phones at age two, he carries the generational baggage of liking things that possess texture, form, weight, and look like they were made. Whether a condition of being born in a particular decade before the Internet, or a product of an art school education, in the past Butler supplemented the invisible labour of his digital art with offline materiality. In the early years Butler’s ink drawings, paintings and sculptures looked like they had gone through a hard labour from online to offline, like Cronenberg's venereal TV giving birth to a condemning finger in Videodrome (1982).
SNOW WHITE THOUGHT THESE WERE NOT DREAMS AT ALL, IMAGES THAT WE REMEMBER IN OUR BODIES AND ON OUR BEDSHEETS WHEN WE WAKE. BUT MORE LIKE MEMORIES, THOSE TERRIBLE THINGS THAT WE WALLOW IN WHEN THE PRESENT BECOMES UNBEARABLE AND THE FUTURE UNDENIABLE.
In Butler's recent work ON EXACTITUDE IN SCIENCE shown at IMMA last year, and his work in his current solo show THE NEED TO ARGUE IN THE MASTER’S LANGUAGE at Visual Carlow, he has excoriated the concrete labour from his art production with a serial killer’s knowledge of bleach products. We cannot be sure ON EXACTITUDE IN SCIENCE was a 17-month labour or ejaculate conception. The same way we cannot be sure in the dark ambience of the Digital Gallery in Visual Carlow that the large photographic portrait print taken with Grand Theft Auto’s in-game camera is just that, or a laborious process. I know the latter is the case. But the concrete labour of Butler's previous offline objects has given way to smooth and complete objects that I want to possess – just like the John Currin I wanted to possess as an art student. Butler might say and believe that “it’s not a fetishism for the art object, rather the genealogy of art and representation is my focus”, but the way in which he has inset his large prints into the gallery wall with the secrecy of a wall safe behind a painting, turns us all into fetishists. Me anyway. In fact fetishism might be all we are doing as viewers of art. It’s just some artworks tap-tap-tap on our desires and fears.
SOMETIMES SNOW WHITE WISHED HER EYES WERE DRAWN ON RATHER THAN REAL...
For 30 minutes I lay back on one of the four gaming chairs in Visual Carlow with my two year old daughter, Lucy. Even at two she knew not to get too close to the artworks, steering my legs away when I did. But she also said “Don't look Daddy,” perhaps imagining something in the dark that might hurt us and by closing our eyes we would be safe. Butler’s world is scary, or what he searches for and identifies in our new world with a mechanical empathy. His subject is the city of Los Santos set within two editions of the action-adventure video game Grand Theft Auto. Los Santos is Los Angeles’ digital doppelgänger. Butler has been haunting this digital world through the Grand Theft Auto proxy for some time now. But as an artist who flips cockroaches onto their backs Los Santos proper would never be enough for Butler. So he looks beyond where the gaming action takes place, into the ‘Tenderloin’ environments and characters that have limited animation cycles and details but are somehow more real. Here, as our parents might say, live the “undesirables”.
Alan Butler's THE NEED TO ARGUE IN THE MASTER’S LANGUAGE through 27 May 2018——And on the 26 May WHEN FACTS DON'T MATTER opens at St. Carthage Hall, Lismore Castle, Ireland.
Madder Lake Editions