Deborah Butterfield, Vermillion, 1989
Detail of Deborah Butterfield, Vermillion, 1989
Valerie Fletcher: When Deborah Butterfield attended the University of California, Davis, she intended to become a veterinarian. That goal was inspired largely by her love of horses. Instead, she translated that love of horses into art. After she graduated and moved to Montana, she began making plaster sculptures of horses and yet she knew she didn’t want to make realistic depictions of horses. She was not out to look like a Remington sculpture where you have a bucking bronco or a beautifully sleek racehorse. Rather, she was trying to get at something more fundamental. Eventually, she realized she couldn’t do that with plaster. She decided to turn to scraps of metal. This is not quite as surprising as it might seem because she, in the 1970s, was building upon a tradition that had emerged strongly in American sculpture in the 1950s. It is known by a number or names, one of them is simply to call it junk sculpture – that is, sculpture made from found objects usually junked machinery.
Well, she would find old scraps of metal and construct them to resemble horses and that is the work that we have here. It’s called Vermilion, after the color, a very intense reddish color. But primarily this is a depiction of a horse made of junk scraps of metal and what’s remarkable is that you could view it as just construction, that is it’s got an implication that this is part of modern life, it’s all junk, it’s all used up, it’s being recycled. But rather, when you look at her horse, you realize it has a phenomenal sense of anatomy and posture and how it holds itself exactly like a real horse.
Butterfield herself is an accomplished horsewoman and she indeed not only raises and trains her horses, but she rides them professionally in a style known as dressage. So when you walk around her sculpture, take a look at how it morphs back and forth from being an abstract construction to being the evocation of a living, breathing horse and it is that paradox, that contradiction and ambiguity between the two that makes her pieces so magical.