Artist’s work offers tips for better living
WHAT IT IS: An archival pigment print from Paul Butler’s Guidelines, on view at the Winnipeg Art Gallery as part of the group show Winnipeg Now. Featuring ambitious new work by 13 artists whose creative roots are in our town, Winnipeg Now is the first of three big exhibitions that will celebrate the WAG’s centenary.
WHAT IT MEANS: The 39-yearold Butler, who is currently based in Montreal, has always been drawn to the visual grab-bag of pop culture, Art historian Alison Gillmor looks beneath the surface
of newsworthy art ages with black-on-white text boxes, Butler examines the North American mania for self-help, self-improvement and personal transformation through “positive mental attitudes” (the name of one of Butler’s early shows).
“Get a dog” features a photogenic terrier shaking a paw against a backdrop of blue sky and white cloud. Butler tweaks the imagery, though — the subject is pixellated, the colour artificially sweet, the foreground and background slightly disconnected. What at first seems the cheery promise of a better tomorrow is subtly undercut.
If the photo-based images in Guidelines were just read as social satire, they would be too pat. But in Things to Do, 1999-2011, the second component of the installation, Butler implicates himself in this human impulse toward motivational self-talk and constantly renewing fresh starts. The artist offers his own obsessive to-do lists of the last dozen years, custom-bound in a massive (absolutely massive!) book, along with a video that documents the brisk turning of the book’s pages. In this very personal ephemera, Butler reveals a penchant for organizing, prioritizing and resolution-making that is positively Oprah-esque.
There are notes-to-self (“Make art. Read. Bike.”), scrawled phone numbers, grocery lists (“soap, coffee”) and reminders about photographing, framing and shipping artworks. There are international successes (“email Iceland”), along with some “Dear Paul” rejection letters. Butler calls it “a portrait of an emerging artist, complete with all the accompanying dreams, obsessions, rejections, fears and failures,” and in its compulsive detail and overwhelming volume, the book achieves an offbeat poignancy.
WHY IT MATTERS: Butler considers himself “a post-disciplinary artist.” Here he distils the big, bright images of aspirational advertising into controlled formal pieces, while offering the counterweight of his own scribbled, idiosyncratic history. Taken together, these two components form a layered examination of potential, from the shiny promises of our makeover culture to the messier stops-and-starts of lived reality.