ABOVE: An image from Paul Butler's Positive Mental Attitude series.
Lesley McAllister and Gary Michael Dault summed up Paul Butler's work quite succinctly on the occasion of his recent solo exhibition at the Angell Gallery in Toronto:
Paul Butler refers to his photo collages in the Positive Mental Attitude Series as the "visual equivalent of Prozac." Working in the handmade pre-Photoshop collage tradition of the 1980's, the Winnipeg artist takes inspirational water and landscape images from magazines, adds cut-out advertising slogans, obscures what he doesn't want with duct tape, then rephotographs them, bringing them back into the seductive and easily consumed medium of glossy photography. You can't get much more restful than turquoise waves crashing on the beach, fluffy clouds moving across yellow wheat or rosy light reflecting off snow-capped mountains. These are, indeed, happy pictures, and pretty to look at - landscapes are drenched in colour, and the brushstroke-like texture of the bands of tape add a painterly quality. More Zen than Prozac, Butler's cryptic layering of text and image hints at some pretty big issues that need meditating on - namely, the safety of our water and the selling off of our natural resources. A scene of an early-morning lake has the caption "You Care" floating among the marsh grasses. And the word "Aware" makes a small black smudge on an all-white image of polar ice. It's as if he distilled the beauty from the car ads and vacation brochures, dumped all the shit and has given the art back to the viewer.
-Lesley McAllister "Calm Collage," January 25-31, 2001[ Toronto Visual Art, NOW magazine]
....So when the whole scene, with its taped-on message of good cheer, is rephotographed and enlarged, you get this endearingly sloppy, tossed-off and rather painterly interference in the get-well-card moment. This of course deftly punctures its saccharine sentiment.
- Gary Michael Dault, "Paul Butler at Angell Gallery," Gallery Going, Saturday, January 27, 2001 [Toronto: The Globe and Mail]
Paul Butler's subject is contemporary advertising, its reflection of urban social values, its fascination with superficial beauty, and its glamorization of life. He works in the collage tradition by cutting up magazines and then pasting, reorganizing, and sometimes obscuring the ad imagery from magazines with materials like duct tape and vinyl. He also photographs many of his collages in order to restore to them the seamless beauty of the glossy magazine.
Butler has shown both his raw collages and glossy photographs of them in recent public exhibitions. At Gallery One One One the original collage works are shown on Plexiglas on black grounds, arranged around the room in a syncopated fashion and packed close so that a viewer can scan the show as fast as they could flip though a magazine.
Butler's best-known works are from The Positive Mental Attitude series (the title of this exhibition "Getting there is half the fun!" is taken from this series). The Positive Mental Attitude works are inspirational land and water images with motivational texts derived from ads collaged on top.
Butler's Art Ads begin with advertisements from art magazines that list the artists a gallery represents. This kind of ad has become a conventional way to soberly let the art public know who shows at a gallery. Often Butler obscures all the artist names so that his finished work looks like a tiny colour field painting.
The most abstract set of works on view at Gallery One One One are the artist's Edited Drawings works. To make these tiny abstractions Butler obscures notes from his own sketch pad pages with oddly-shaped bits of tape.
The Perfect 10 series is composed of works that Butler has created using Perfect 10 magazine (the actual name of a publication). Butler uses tiny bits of black masking tape on female figures in order to obsessively turn the figures into silhouettes.
Manster is the title of the latest body of Paul Butler's work. "Manster" refers to Butler's self-perception (and that of some other young males like himself) as a gender monster. Butler's identification, however, is neither self-pitying nor self-aggrandizing, but absurdly gothic and satirical. "In the Manster series the heads of porn stars have been transposed onto figures of horror magazines to become metaphors for men in the shadow of male-dominated history," says Butler. As he sends up Hollywood publicity stills and porn in his collages, the artist seems to simultaneously mock and
affirm the cliché that men are predatory creatures who delight in violence.
(Note: the text below is included in the catalogue for Paul Butler's 2003 Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art exhibition.)
"Eventually, I decided to break away from this life of quiet desperation. To leave Winnipeg, the seventh level of hell. To allow the magic in my soul to ride the wind and see where it landed." -- accused Winnipeg bank robber, Pan Am Games festival promoter, city bureaucrat, and Irish Republican Army impersonator Klaus Burlakow as quoted (and partly highlighted in bold) in "A Tangled Tale..." by Susan Bourette, Toronto: The Globe & Mail, 20 May 2003, A71
"If people don't care about Winnipeg, that means we can do anything we want." - Paul Butler (May 2003 conversation with the author)
Burlakow is now in a Winnipeg jail, his need to "ride the wind" crushed. Could art have saved him the way it saves artists like Paul Butler?
Winnipeg artists, I think, tend to turn radically inward, ordering the world with their fantasies. But they also love publicity. They may believe, like Burlakow, that Winnipeg is, as Dante describes his seventh level of heck, a compound fit only for the after lives of violent criminals -- it is, after all, the murder capital of Canada -- but their escape, unlike Burlakow's, is perfectly legal. Paul Butler, for example, often travels to Toronto (the sixth level?) and other art centres with his collages, his glossy Duraflex prints, his online gallery (the "othergallery"), and boxes of magazines. Not only Butler, but many Winnipeg artists feel that their quiet studio practice must have a hectic promotion and travel schedule attached.
Collage2 is a picture-making technique introduced into high art by Picasso and Braque in 1912. The first high art collage was Picasso's Still Life with Chair Caning, on which he pasted a piece of oilcloth that had a depiction of chair caning printed on it. "Six months later," says Picasso biographer John Richardson "Braque would retaliate when, behind Picasso's momentarily turned back, he came up with the first papier collé."3 Surrealists like Max Ernst began to splice images from prints, engravings and photographs into a more illusionistic space than the Cubists employed. Photomontage, the seamless artistic doctoring of photographic images that was always part of photography, became a technical relative of collage among artists.
Beginning in the 1950s Robert Rauschenberg made collages he called 'combines' in much the same manner as Picasso and Braque, only larger. Thereafter collage began to fade as photographic and painted versions of photomontage proliferated. Even Rauschenberg's work became more photomontagist and less collagist as Pop Art gained ground in the 1960s. The computer program Photoshop, introduced in the 1990s as the ultimate photomontage device, enabled artists to splice images and "paint" pictures pixel by pixel. Collage is clogged with material, and the world in the 1990s seemed to be dematerializing in a way that it hadn't since the conceptual/pop art era of the 1960s and 1970s, at least according to dot com theorists. But when technical things like Photoshop become ubiquitous they become a dull, just a standard tool in the artist's paint box (more recently the same thing has happened to web sites). Whenever a new wave of dematerialization is announced, the immediate reassertion of materiality by contrarian artists can be expected: hence the recent return of collage.
After completing art school, Paul Butler was deeply influenced by an important 1998 Plug In exhibition of the collages by the pop star Beck and his Fluxus artist grandfather Al Hansen. The show was called Playing with Matches and was curated by Wayne Baerwaldt. It toured North America, Europe and Japan. Beck's pop-star glamour made collage seem cool again just as Photoshop began to seem ho-hum. Indeed, Plug In became a kind of grad school for Butler, a place where he learned the mechanics of "festivalism" (see below). He also cites Plug In's World Tea Party project (an ongoing performance art work by Vancouver's brian mulvihill, aka Trolley Bus) as an inspiring example of a social art practice.
Butler also grew up, it should be noted, with an awareness of punk and heavy metal movements in pop culture that have used collage as anarchist expression since the mid-1970s. In conversation Butler also mentions the practice of "sampling," a term in popular music that refers to the electronic theft of musical phrases, as being especially analogous to his own light box works which restore to collaged magazine pages a glossy magazine's aura of glamour.
Punk collage (originating with the Sid-and-Nancy-Malcolm-McLaren aesthetic) and sampling in hip-hop music (all the way back to run-DMC) are not, of course, the same thing. Punk is an anti-technology protest against the "overproduction" of pop music and indeed, Western society itself, but sampling amounts to a backhanded tribute to the purloined musical phrase, and it is computer-based -- nothing low-tech about it.
Butler's collages can seem either raw like street trash or formally beautiful like abstract painting; the Duraflex blowups are spectacular reproductions of the rough-and-ready original collages, and also, of course, works of art in themselves. Add to this the "performative" or "appropriationist" (in the sense that Butler, however benignly, conducts) social sculpture of the collage parties and Butler's online gallery and you have a complex practice: this artist does it all.
The mechanics of a collage party have been the same in London, Norway, and Winnipeg: Butler puts chairs, tables, tape, magazines, and people together for an hour or several days, and lets them play. I've been to four -- two at Plug In I.C.A., one at St. Norbert Arts Centre (part of a Gallery One One One exhibition of Butler's work that I curated), and one at the Toronto International Art Fair, sponsored by that city's Power Plant Gallery.
A Collage Party, like a World Tea Party event or pop star art show, is an example of "festivalism," Peter Schjeldahl's famous one-word summation of the contemporary art fair and biennial system.4 Festivalism presents an art exhibition as a spectacle rather than a set of contemplative objects (Plug In coordinator Valery Camarta, among others, refers to the latter as a "passive" show). But, and this is important, a collage party also turns participants and viewers away from the mere consumption of an event toward the personal engagement with their own art. A collage party is about many hands slapping, folding, creasing, and tearing, whereas festivalism needs hands only to make applause.
Butler does not instruct collagists on what to do or how to do it. Collage parties are not 'workshops' but an activity that mostly involves professional artists making their own art (they don't have to make collages, by the way). The work is always publicly made and then immediately displayed.
Some magazines are passed around untouched, others denuded of just a few images, and yet more pulped as if the art were being squeezed out of them. Why pass over an image of Debbie Reynolds from 1950s Hollywood black and white stargazer magazine? Why linger over last month's corner store porn? Should I cut out this picture of a car or a shoe, or both?
Occasionally alcoholic mayhem is stirred into the stew, but most often not: a typical collage party is more like a quilting bee or a sewing circle than a drunken dumpster dive. Even if someone violently rips up paper, the prevailing mood is contemplative as a neat set of boxed magazines, pristine towers of tape and a clean room are turned into a pummeled pile of paper, a wall of collages, and a messy room. Otherwise, a collage party is a set of long, dreamy interludes of looking. One notices the rap and hip-hop music, conversation is picked up, and one enjoys the visual and verbal exchange -- the compare-and-contrast and the good natured jokes that circulate about the work -- but the real fun of a collage party is in one's head and happens while one is lost in the chaos.
The dynamic of a collage party depends on where it happens and who participates. A party in 2001 at St. Norbert Arts Centre was sedate and intimate.5 Butler and a few Calgary friends joined the local Winnipeg crowd for a lovely weekend in which children and many other non-artists took part (Butler hustled the boxes of pornography discretely out of the way when the kids showed up.)
At the most recent Plug In collage party -- held in March 2003 -- Butler and a local artists collective called "26" blissfully discovered each other. "26" is a group of ex-graffiti artists and current University of Manitoba art students who clicked with Paul. Although they are only slightly younger than Butler, they promise to carry on collaging to an even younger generation.
Butler's 2002 Toronto International Art Fair Collage Party Power Plant Fund Raising Booth became front page news -- if only in Lola magazine's tabloid-like Art Fair special daily edition. Collagist Jake Kosciuk had to be smuggled in past Art Fair organizers until he got a final boot (something about insulting the Head Art Fair Person on the first day). Meanwhile, artists the likes of Kelly Mark and Germaine Koh pitched in with serious and productive shifts as collagists. I worked at fever pace wanting to make my own work my own way, and the loose structure of the party let me do that. During a break I wandered into the London dealer Michael Gibson's booth, where I watched a batty collector peel off bills from a fat wad. Nothing else interesting seemed to be happening as Butler's collage party billowed out into surrounding booths. For a moment the mysteries of art making became more transparent than the mysteries of art selling.
- Cliff Eyland
1) Susan Bourette. "A Tangled Tale..." Toronto: The Globe & Mail, 20 May 2003, A7
2) Sir David Piper ed. Collins reference Dictionary of Art & Artists, Glasgow: Mitchell Beazley 1988, 122 states "...a term derived from the French coller, to gum, used to describe works of art created by sticking bits of paper, material or other items on to a flat backing. Though basically a two-dimensional work, it can have a sculptural effect. The Cubists were the first to practise it extensively, extending the accepted boundaries of art by their combination of painted surfaces with real or painted materials."
3) John Richardson. A Life of Picasso, volume 2, London: Jonathan Cape, 1996, 225.
4) Schjeldahl, Peter. "Festivalism." New York: The New Yorker, July 1999, 85-86. This is the word that links together the theory of Plug In's programming over the last fifteen years, Klaus Burlakow, the Collage Party, and the othergallery -- they all centre on the creation of public spectacle. By contrast Butler's collages, and most of what is contemplatively made at a collage party by artists does not connote "festivalism." At http://www.artnet.com/Magazine/features/finch/finch9-3-02.asp Charlie Finch traces the term "festivalism" to the Seinfeld television comedy show "...a term...coined by Peter Schjeldahl via [Seinfeld writer] Larry David, who invented 'Festivus,' the imaginary holiday of the [George, a Seinfeld character] Costanza family"
5) As mentioned, this party was organized as part of Butler's first museum show, called "Getting there is half the fun!" in 2001 at Gallery One One One at the University of Manitoba School of Art.
Gallery One One One, School of Art, Main Floor, FitzGerald Building, University of Manitoba Fort Garry campus, Winnipeg, MB, CANADA R3T 2N2 TEL:204 474-9322 FAX:474-7605. For information please contact Robert Epp firstname.lastname@example.org