Andre Butzer / Viele Tote im Heimatland: Fanta, Sprite, H-Milch, Micky und Donald! / oil on canvas / 2007 / Metro Pictures Gallery
In art criticism of another era, John Dewey made an attempt to distinguish between expression and emotional discharge. To paraphrase, expression is a distillation of emotion whereby the artist creates a unity between medium, idea, and emotion to create a communication of a higher order, whereas emotional discharge is the actual experience of an emotion at a moment in time. Expression is the mark of the artist and art, while emotional discharge is simply an ordinary universal human experience, its not art. While criticism of this sort has fallen out of fashion, I think it is relevant to a discussion of Andre Butzer’s work and the category of abstraction represented by his paintings, because his work reminded me of Dewey’s distinction between expression and discharge. It wasn’t and isn’t clear to me exactly what was going on in his paintings. In formal terms, the figure ground relationships weren’t well developed, the gestural markings didn’t seem to relate to images, and the colors were all the same intensity, which is not to say that this is not intentional. The overall effect in all of the paintings is a of a flat, busy, and loud pictorial surface that is visually disturbing.
As I am not in the business of psychoanalyzing artists, and as I have no knowledge of the artist’s history, I will give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he is most likely not engaged in emotional discharge. But, it is a fine line, and the artist’s loose methods of drawing and paint application make it difficult for one to know for sure. In addition, the mask-like and vegetable-headed figures that populate the paintings provide few clues to the communication, making it difficult for the viewer to know what to make of what is happening on the walls. Only if you take time to read the exhibition listing and press release on the counter at the front of the gallery do you learn the titles of the paintings or the identities of the figures, but even that is only of limited help.
When I enter a gallery or museum and engage with a piece of work, I try to avoid reading any of these statements and try to engage first with work. I want to try, as much as is possible, to engage directly with the work and not have that initial first experience mediated by the artist or critic telling me what I am supposed to experience or take away from the artwork. It’s more interesting for me to watch my own response and sort through what I bring to the experience and what the artist is attempting to communicate or get me to experience. In this case my first response was very hesitant, looking through the widows of Metro Pictures and seeing Andre Butzer’s paintings on the walls, I almost didn’t enter the gallery. Once I was inside I could feel my body collapsing in on itself, overwhelmed, as if I had entered a space with loud punk rock distorted guitars blaring. The paintings are intense, loud if you will, very large format, saturated bright colours, disturbing imagery, applied with bold gestures and strokes, as well as other abrasive or jarring sprays and splashes. They are heavy and charged, loaded with emotion (or irony, if I am to be fooled). It took a few minutes for my eyes to adjust to the stimulation. I noticed many others step in through the doors only to turn around and quickly scurry away without exploring the exhibition and spending time with the paintings.
The fact that people walked out of the gallery before engaging with the paintings on the walls was actually something very interesting to me. It was easier for them to turn and walk away than to move forward and face the issues on the walls. Like not talking about the alcoholic or abusive family member, or about the fascist president or dictator and their crimes or society’s crimes (remember the artist is German), it easier to remain silent. To try to ignore the abuse. If I don’t pay attention to it, its not there, and its not a problem. Yes, Andre Butzer’s paintings are difficult and problematic, but they should not be ignored or avoided.
Andre Butzer’s work is on view at Metro Pictures Gallery through May 3Tags: oil painting, canvas, german art, art, abstraction, Artist