Artist’s work of­fers tips for bet­ter liv­ing

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - ALI­SON GILL­MOR

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.

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