Gallery visit: Sharon Butler at Pocket Utopia

by A.L. McMichael

Sharon Butler, "Blue Fences," 2013. Pigment and silica binder, staples on laundered linen tarp, 16 x 18 inches. (Photo courtesy of the artist and Pocket Utopia)

Sharon Butler, “Blue Fences,” 2013, Pigment and silica binder, staples on laundered linen tarp, 16 x 18 inches (photo courtesy of the artist and Pocket Utopia)

Last week I snagged an invitation to a small gathering of art appreciators at Pocket Utopia and had a chance to chat with Sharon Butler, whose solo exhibition, “Precisionist Casual,”  will be open there until February 17, 2013. Several people in our group commented on the colors Butler uses throughout the show—deep terracotta pink, muted tangerine and teal, and shades of grey painted onto linen canvases of pumice and beige. Quietly active and sophisticated, the color palette manifests itself in a series of paintings consisting of shapes that are mostly geometric. They demonstrate that the artist is, in fact “drawn to urban settings, structures, and HVAC architecture,”  as promised on the Pocket Utopia website, yet the linework maintains a handmade line quality.

Just before we dispersed, I commented on the shimmery, grey paint that appears throughout the exhibition. Butler responded that it functions like the mineral sparkle we see in sidewalks on a sunny day. It certainly does have that effect in paintings like Blue Fences and Soaked (Hurricane). But for me it was also a reference to the pipes and steel beams that make architecture a three-dimensional creation. It is as if the reflective paint could be a visual shorthand for ‘metal’ and the negative spaces that sculptural and architectural creations surround. This is further emphasized by the relationship of the canvas that is frayed and stapled to the front of the stretcher, which Paul D’Agostino calls a concatenatory teasing of materials and dimensions. Butler’s display is a gentle step away from the two-dimensional paint on canvas, but one that provides an easy mental leap to built spaces. On Sunday I read Tom Micchelli’s interview with Butler in Hyperallergic Weekend; he also comments on the metallic paint and likens her work to sculpture, noting particularly that the colors in Underpainted HVAC are remniscent of a “dusty, rough-hewn limestone slab.”

Sharon Butler, "Soaked (Hurricane)," 2013. Pigment and silica linen tarp, 18 x 24 inches. (Photo courtesy of the artist and Pocket Utopia).

Sharon Butler, “Soaked (Hurricane),” 2013, Pigment and silica linen tarp, 18 x 24 inches (Photo courtesy of the artist and Pocket Utopia)

The graphite color also conjures up mental images of pencil sketches, of motions creating quick linework, making a gestural statement on flat paper. Some days I can’t stop being a Byzantine scholar, particularly when musing about that link between color and motion. Today, this shimmery paint bridges the gap between contemporary art and medieval mosaics. Art historian Liz James has written about the medieval Byzantines’ use of gold and gems in art—the shimmer activated spaces; reflections of light made the viewer feel as if the space between him and the art was full of energy, drawing him into the image and providing a link to a mystical, heavenly realm.

What’s interesting here is that for both Micchelli and me, Butler’s use of color brought forth connotations of three-dimensionality. That ‘color psychology’ is a nebulous term (and a concept that varies wildly between cultures and individuals) in no way negates the fact that color and emotion are intertwined—we often think of color as an artist’s choice that sets a mood or sends a message. I’d like to emphasize, though, that it’s not just hues but attributes of color—opacity, depth of tone, reflectiveness, (yes, shimmer)—that engage us. Viewing art creates an energy, and the urban quietude of Butler’s canvases harnesses it in a colorful experience that is thought-provoking without resorting to kitschiness or snark.