Art is never about what it shows us. When we look at a painting -- say the "Mona Lisa" -- we see much more than some colored oils dried on a surface. Most viewers would even say that a description of the work as "a portrait of a lady" is inadequate. What captivates viewers, and will continue to captivate them for centuries, is the idea that there is something more hiding behind what the work shows us. Who is this woman? Do I know anyone like her? Why is she smiling that way? How would I have to feel in order to smile that way myself?
The sculptures of Deborah Butterfield have a similar depth. On the surface, they are horses. Crafted from pieces of driftwood, salvaged, rusting steel and mud, they can be clearly recognized and immediately categorized: horse. But something else is at work here. Perhaps it's the material that Butterfield uses -- ropey, natural materials that seem to hold themselves together: a single broad band representing a stomach, a tense rod proclaiming a neck. Looking at them, it's impossible not to sense tremendous natural forces; the same elements that have pushed up the mountains and flattened the plains of Montana, where Butterfield lives, have yielded these works. Walking through the galleries of Gonzaga's Jundt Art Museum, where Butterfield's sculptures are on display, feels almost like striding across a landscape.
"When you actually look at a horse," Butterfield says, from her home outside of Bozeman, "they're like a nude model in a figure-drawing class. A reclining nude is almost more landscape than a figure. So I started doing reclining horses using mud and sticks, thinking that the horse was more part of the landscape than we were -- making them out of the earth itself."
When Butterfield made her first horse sculpture in 1973, however, "it was not a fashionable thing to do," she says. "I was at U.C. Davis. The art department was very contemporary, and doing figurative art was not very fashionable at the time -- and doing a horse was even cornier. So I had to find a way to do the horse form and make the intention more complex than that. I wanted to make personal art, but I didn't want to use the figure. So I decided to use the horse rather than my own body. So I made the horse an allegorical substitute for myself.
"The irony of doing a reclining horse is that a horse can stand and sleep, in order to run and avoid a predator. But when they're relaxed and comfortable, they snuggle up and snooze right away. So for me, making these self-portraits of mares lying down in an art gallery, with these viewers and critics stalking around, was a very brave stance."
In the last 30 years, Butterfield's work has captured a wide audience -- appealing to both viewers who value abstract, concept-laden art and those who want to be able to identify the subject of a sculpture. Included in permanent collections in many of America's major art museums, Butterfield's sculptures have also changed from the mud-and-sticks reclining horses to metal, driftwood and bronze constructions.
"I think I'm drawn to things that have their own history," she explains about her choice of materials, "like weathered wood, burned-out crushed metal, anything that's washed up on the beach. Stuff that just has its own narrative already in it. I let the life story of the material define what that horse is about. So rather than create lines myself, I recognize the line, volume and color in the various materials, and try to put them together to create a story that I'm almost listening to rather than creating."
After nearly 30 years of working with the equine shape, however, Butterfield says that she feels no need to change. Horses are a part of her life -- she owns eight and competes in dressage -- and she says that horses are "really what my life is about. It's sort of like being married -- you can always find a different guy, but basically you'll end up in the same place, having to work the same stuff out with a different guy. You're still dealing with the same depth of investigation. This is a form that I feel I've worked the hardest on, and it's my hope of becoming more enlightened as I'm working."