After Vasari

writings on artists and artworks and where they exist

Month: December, 2015

In : Out :: / Out : In ::

by Paul D'Agostino

_Caput_ _Procedure_ invite


In : Out ::

In, inward, into, within, endogenic, ingressive, inside: Many are the modes and forms of inner-tending, variably interiorizing terms and motilities that one might associate with Tom Butter’s artworks. His paintings and sculptures alike are wont to turn, gyrate and churn, at times toward real or implied centers—the paintings, via gestural strokes, directional linearities and compositional flow; the sculptures, via a range of generally less-than-presumable yet ever-plausible, sometimes aberrant or amusingly jarred kinetics that seem now barely centrifugal, now subtly centripetal. With all their flux and functional switchings, with all their ins and outs, Butter’s works could perhaps quite nearly, not unlike certain prepositional analogies, engorge one another, then devour themselves.

A most peculiar, mechanically genial, bizarrely balanced, disturbingly jocular and behaviorally confounding sculpture is Caput, a piece whose apparently simple, somewhat centripetally erratic motion would be consistent if it weren’t for the friction of certain surfaces, the presence of certain finishes, the interference of a wall, the tensile resistance of a twisting, force-conveying metal belt, and the irregular form and considerable mass of a captivatingly piece-capping albeit floor-bound wooden ball. Caput’s spasmodic motion is its function, its spasmodic function is its motion, and since both are intermittently stunted, thwarted and blunted like the day is long, the piece’s repetitive yet not fully predictable comportment makes it not merely uniquely Sisyphean, but also an exquisite commentary on being and becoming, on doing and making, on trying and conceiving, on coming and going, on failing and flailing, on flunking and clunking—not to mention on the useful futility, or futile usefulness, of tedium. Caput is the anachronistic Caput Mundi of a busted world, perhaps, or perhaps it’s so captive to its inherent natures that it eludes or precludes its own usefulness, purpose or success. It is also, in a way—as a spiritedly animated object, or as an ersatz pet—quite adorably pathetic, simpatico, endearing.

There is something affirmatively friendly about Caput, in other words, an observation of indirect relevance that makes broader formal sense, nonetheless, when it’s considered in an expanded context that would include, also, a painting called Procedure, a companion work of sorts whose linear arcs and compositional dependencies between spatially disparate, energetically bundled forms display just enough visual analogousness to make the pieces appear readily kindred. Procedure, however, thanks in part to the placid qualities of its subtle pinks, greys and variably striated compositional horizontalities, reads like a realm of resolve, repose, relief or release, or perhaps even, at some remove, salvation—metaphysical, merely material or elsewise. Between one wall-knocking of its head, as it were, and another, Caput itself might dream, and dizzily so, of retiring to Procedure’s sphere of fluidity, quiescence, calm.

But then Caput’s mechanical condemnation kicks comically back into gear. And there it goes all over again—spinning itself, clubbing itself, lugging itself up some implied hill of numbingly eternal cumbersomeness. It gives in to itself, knocks into its surroundings, struggles inward for something, yet also for naught. If only there were, as it were, a clear way out.

— 502 :


_Working_ _Core_ invite


Out : In ::

Out, outward, out of, out from, exogenic, egressive, outside: Many are the forms and modes of exteriorizing, variably outer-tending motilities and terms that one might associate with Tom Butter’s artworks. His sculptures and paintings alike are wont to churn, gyrate and turn, at times away from real or implied centers—the sculptures, via a range of ever-plausible yet generally less-than-presumable, sometimes amusingly jarred or aberrant kinetics that seem now barely centripetal, now subtly centrifugal; the paintings, via compositional flow, directional linearities and gestural strokes. With all their functional switchings and flux, with all their outs and ins, Butter’s works could perhaps quite nearly, not unlike certain prepositional analogies, devour one another, then engorge themselves.

The resting state of the painting Core is, by and large, hardly restful at all. Rather, it is restive, tumultuous, turbid and roiling, a primarily bright-orange convulsion that might be a sort of geological extrusion, or a fulgor or flare dancing about eruptively on some distant astral surface, or a writ-large close-up of a wee little blossom, or perhaps just a heaving, surging, stirring chromatic effulgence. A certain darkness, however, in Core’s lower right register seems to hint at an interior otherness, or an unknowable beyond or subsurface pitch, or a titularly relevant central force that serves to dial the composition’s frenzy down a notch. What’s more, a rather curiously string-like line, also quite dark, darts up and curves down from one side to the other, a loose girding or spatially placeless garland of sorts that makes of so much stridency something ultimately melodious.

In formal harmony with that very line, then, is a meticulously braided circuit of pink twine that truly does gird loosely, in veritably garland-like fashion, the relatively circular upper portion of a sculpture called Working, a piece whose consistent, delicate, somewhat peaceful rotation is just deliberate enough to suggest potential centrifugality, and whose terrifically haunting, perhaps haunted gloves—because handless, because armless, because body-less, because worker-less—locked firm into a torqued, wrenching grip around the structure’s central axis, are at once a hint that something in the ‘works,’ or in the ‘workings’, has gone significantly awry, and a focalizing synecdoche for all the toil, ache and struggle that go into conceiving, creating, ‘working on’ and making things. The ‘work’ at ‘hand’ in Working is repetitive, in a way, yet not redundant; it is visually tangible and spatially present, even if also, in a structural sense, only barely there. The implied welder whose means of manual protection have been abandoned was flung away, perhaps, when Working’s slow spin went rogue-fast for an erred moment, or the ‘worker’ has gone missing for some other unknowable reason—and he remains the machine’s inherent secret, its enigma, its ghost.

Working worked its worker to the bone, worked him all the way away. As a viewer, a somewhat empathically disarmed one at that, you become one with this phantom’s wearied body in his phantom space. As he, too, might have—or still might—you might wish that the machine would invite you in.

— 502 :


These essays were composed as accompaniments to Tom Butter’s solo exhibition, In : Out :: Out : In, at Studio 10 Gallery in Bushwick, Brooklyn. The exhibition opens on the evening of 2 January 2016, from 7-9pm, and runs through 31 January. More information here.

Paul D’Agostino, Ph.D. is an artist, writer, translator, curator and professor living in Bushwick, Brooklyn. More information about him is available here, and you can find him as @postuccio on Instagram and Twitter.

Images featured in this post are courtesy Tom Butter. For more information about him and his work, visit

Studio Visit: Matthew L. Rossi

by A.L. McMichael

Minnow Egg

“Minnow Egg” taken May 2015.

There’s a table in Matt’s apartment on which generations of Rossis have rolled out the family ravioli recipe, where he composed twelve short stories that encompassed an MFA thesis before tackling several hundred pages of a novel, and where an electric kettle boils water every morning for the French-press coffee maker sitting beside it. I know all of these things because I share the kitchen where this patinaed wooden surface is positioned between two windows. The view is of urban backyard gardens and the Empire State Building, its spire a glowing beacon after dark. Over the last few months, though, the table’s role has morphed from office to laboratory to studio. The growing body of photographic work Matt does there captures dozens of miniscule flora and fauna, the kinds of lives I probably unknowingly squash with a flip-flop on any given trip through the yard.

Matthew Rossi's handcrafted field microscope, with water from a Brooklyn creek and assorted found objects.

Matthew Rossi’s handcrafted field microscope, with water from a Brooklyn creek and assorted found objects. (Photo: A.L. McMichael)

“What looks to the naked eye like a jar full of mud is teeming with little creatures,” he asserts with the glee of a kid returning home from summer camp. Sure enough, a tiny sac of minnow eggs looks like a submerged trove of pearls in the blue light of his microscope camera (top photo). Indeed, the visual effects of his nature photography are surprisingly sophisticated, a powerful harnessing of cardboard, e-waste, and nature’s detritus. To record these images, he created a field microscope using the lens from a CD-ROM drive mounted to discarded computer packaging in order to see a nearly-invisible creature by viewing it on an iPhone screen through its camera. The glass microscope slides are backlit by an LED bulb from a bicycle safety light (a process akin to shooting on a lightbox), lending the subjects an ethereal affectation and often constraining the picture frame into a circle. From there, Matt composes larger-than-life photographs of the minuscule world.


“Amphipod,” photo of a crustacean from Sea Isle City, NJ.

An image of an amphipod’s veins and surfaces (above) recalls the velvet richness of chiaroscuro paintings, wherein shapes and stories emerge from darkness. The resulting aesthetic lies somewhere between Man Ray’s minimalist surrealism and the fervor of a Goya etching. But to me the subject matter also calls to mind Northern Renaissance artists’ social commentary embedded into paintings—references to death, redemption, and new life emerging in the painstaking accuracy of depicted flora and fauna—and I’m tempted to silently salute Rachel Carson with every newly identified citizen of the ecosystems in Matt’s photos. The amphipod’s delicate lines are striking against the deep ocean of bokeh. There’s both serenity and danger in this velvety deep. The paper-thin slides on which it swims are in sharp contrast to the vastness of oceans and rivers where such creatures live.

Nature photography like this is an art of transformation, relying on changes in scale, in light. The act of seeing the invisible and reframing it at such a vastly different scale, “strangely opens up the world in a way [that is] different than other things I have experienced,” Matt explains. Creatures like vorticella (protozoa) are “not hanging out, but forming gelatinous structures.” He continues, “I think of them as floating mind-maps.” Their cilia (tiny, moving hairs) move all the time, catching occasional prey while colonies of vorticella seem to the untrained eye to be simply hanging out in the water.

He likens describing the natural world to analyzing formal elements in art: “When you blow up their world to our size, you get texture. You get clusters. [The plants and animals] have structures.” When he invites a formal analysis of nature itself, as well as the photographic context in which it’s captured, historical nature writers like Charles Darwin and John James Audobon reverberate in the work. To Matt, part of the naturalist’s role is to recognize and identify the inspected creatures, giving them a certain dignity. A brownish grey moth wing is “unremarkable at a distance” but, under the microscope, it has textured “brushstrokes,” and scales become an assembled series of gradient browns with the dimensionality of little structures that assemble themselves into an insect. The arrangement of cells in a leaf reveals “how much more textured the world is than what we see.”

One outcome of this kind of sustained formal analysis and appreciation is a responsibility and empathy for the unseen, a recognition that we are part of a larger universe. Matt cites Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Radiolab talk, “Space“, on how the telescope opens up the vastness of the universe to humans, who become the microscopic creatures in that equation. He also counts Timothy Morton’s ecocriticism as influence toward the conflation of art and science to drive that conversation. He’s fond of using Morton’s term “Earth magnitude” for the notion of thinking about things “on a scale so much larger than you can conceive of,” like Morton’s example of systems as objects, or for thinking of a species as it exists as a continuum.

One half-joking series of inquiries is what Matt has christened, “Things That Peeve Me,” which looks at mosquitoes, pollen, mold, and the like. He performs a style of catch-and-release photography for it, wherein he examines the offending creatures and then lets them go, either back into a little tank or their original habitat. Tormented by mosquitoes all summer, he finally captured a larva, which will have a chance to “grow into a mosquito, which I will put outside.” I pressed him a bit about the altruism toward predatory insects: “Looking at it in this form is different,” he argues, because there’s a difference between a pest in a pot of dirty water and an animal with a functioning digestive tract. “I see it contract, responding to me,” so that it’s “not just eating me, but me-sized.

“So, are you on equal footing as creatures?” I ask.

“Well,” comes the response. “It’s like me in some ways, but really nothing like me.” The larva in question squirms away, its muscles contracting. Indeed, in a video of mosquito larva, the sounds of life in our apartment—water running, background music, our yowling and impatient housecat—highlighting that the ecosystem we call home includes constant imposition of the odd and invisible.

This nudibranch (a kind of sea snail) came from a tidal pool under the Manhattan Bridge in November. Video shot through a macro lens. (NudibranchMatthew Rossi via Vimeo.)

The natural world maintains its own agency in the workflow, one in which images and movements are revealed to the photographer rather than him manipulating a preconceived subject. Matt does not always know what’s in the water or mud before it hits the slide. The creative output, then, is an ongoing documentation of investigating nature, channeled into a series of images selected to represent that process. What the eye sees through a microscope is incredibly hard to capture, making the photographic process a return to the seeming randomness of the found object in nature. In defining art as finding new ways to see or represent something, harnessing the power of tiny lenses to illuminate and magnify becomes a deeply investigative creative process.

This studio visit took place June 14, 2015. For more of his photographic work, see Matthew Rossi’s Vimeo stream. You can read his contributions to the Foldscope Explore: Exploring the Microcosmos community online, including the essays, “Why, As an Artist, I’m Excited About the Foldscope,” “A Model Creature: A Complete Drosophila Life Cycle,” “In DUMBO,” and “The Itch Part Two.” To chat with him on Twitter: @mlrossi80.


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