Studio Visit: Pamela Butler
by Paul D'Agostino
Comprising installations, paintings, collages, sculptures and drawings, some of them scaled large for window displays, as well as text and video pieces, Pamela Butler’s artwork is, in strictly material terms, densely layered. Her layering is also conceptual, however, entailing strata upon strata of feminism-inflected sociocultural critique—from gender discourses and body politics to issues of ethics, socioeconomic disparities, broadly societal shortcomings and common, mundane anxieties.
Layered, stratified, dense. There is a definitive gravity to Butler’s reflections of the world around her.
Nonetheless, Butler’s point of view is that of a regard, not a glare. She channels her observations and commentaries constructively, artfully, not derisively. Her reflections read more like refractions. Her opinions are apparent—or at least intuitable, surmisable—but never so blatant as to give viewers the whole story.
Again, her art is about the layers. Or her art is to be located therein.
More simply, perhaps, layers are her art.
From beauty pageant contestants to astronauts, from traditional tropes of femininity to contemporary representations of women in mainstream media, from meditations on ‘female art’ to evocations of women’s variable presences and absences throughout art history, Butler’s subjects are at once generally recognizable and close to her heart, both overtly public and essentially personal.
Much of what we talked about when I visited her studio pertained to notions of the body—as object, as idea, as container, as surface, as malleable, as regularizable, as regulatable.
Such notions, much like Butler’s artworks, are densely layered. Not unlike the dermal tissues that encase and protect our physicality.
So much talk of all of the above brought to mind a passage a philosopher friend of mine, Andrea Borghini, recently passed along. It’s from Imaginary Bodies: Ethics, Power and Corporeality, by Moira Gatens (Routledge, 1996). Here she discusses Spinoza’s views on the divisions and sutures between mind and body by positing the latter as the “ground of human action”:
The mind is constituted by the affirmation of the actual existence of the body, and reason is active and embodied precisely because it is the affirmation of a particular bodily existence. Activity itself cannot be related especially to body, mind, nature or culture, but rather to an understanding of the possibility of one’s participation in one’s situation as opposed to the passive ‘living’ of one’s social, political or even brute existence. This active understanding does not, and could not, amount to the mental domination of a body-machine, since thought is dependent for its activity on the character of the body and the manner in which, and the context in which, it recreates itself.
I’ll close with that.
Thanks, Pam. Thanks, Andrea. Thanks, Moira.
And thanks, Spinoza.