Apologies to those who’ve been waiting (some impatiently!) for this article, but we’ve been sidetracked by all manner of other pressing commitments.
When Charles (Chick) Butcher invited Megsie to open this show at Sabbia she was somewhat taken aback. The Tilba/Bega connection made sense, as did the contemporary art practice (as opposed to craft) context – but it was a provocative move on Chick’s part given Megsie’s…how shall we put it?…somewhat uncompliant relationship with the incumbent glass Establishment. Chick, only too well aware of the implications has, of course, been diligently pushing his own barrow in that regard so presumably the Megsie factor was, in some respects, a strategic buttressing of stance. Besides, he knew that she’d be completely frank about the work and that she wouldn’t give a speech full of the standard (gl)ass licking platitudes. So far so good. But the lead in to the show was less than ideal; Chick’s mooted trip down the coast to discuss the work/his mindset/the premise didn’t eventuate and a phone call from Mat two days before the event was unrevealingly brief. By the time the delayed Rex flight landed in Sydney there was barely enough time to preview the show, chat up the artists and gauge the work sufficiently to give anything other than a fairly superficial take. Hardly satisfactory from anybody’s point of view - particularly for Megsie who prefers to ponder such things at reasonable length before pronouncing an opinion.
Here, then, is a more fully considered appraisal of After the Object…
Charles Butcher has for some time now been chafing under the constraints of the commercial gallery/glass establishment patronage system whereby emerging practitioners are obliged to conform to hierarchically controlled avenues of advancement, paved by sycophancy and favouritism, which exert a contrived market driven pressure to produce branded collectable product. Nothing wrong with the latter perse if technical mastercraftmanship alone is your penultimate goal. But if you have a compulsion to express yourself - to practice art as opposed to craft - then the way ahead is not so clear, and for a variety of reasons; the most fundamental of which is having possession of a genuine artistic bent. Because regardless of supercilious protestations from various tertiary nobs, this is not something that can be taught - it’s a (possibly preter)natural ability that you either have or have not. Yes, yes, yes; training in technique is mandatory (craftsmanship provides the essential ‘bones’ of a serious artistic practice), tertiary courses do offer the optimum facilities, an education in the arts is key to an informed and enriched practice. Going to an accredited Art School’s glass workshop is undeniably a crucial component of one’s professional development, but it doesn’t maketh the artist – it merely furbishes the tools/hones the skills and burnishes whatever artistic sensibility, hopefully, exists.
[And in the worst case scenarios we know full well from anecdotal evidence that it can crush real talent and potential if the student in question doesn't fit the 'company mould' and/or have the requisite balls to soldier on regardless. It takes some people years to rebuild self-confidence and recover from what many describe as creative violation by the academy. And before you all get up on your brittle high horses, this isn't only confined to glass. n(Ed)]
Charles Butcher, as it happens, has all the hallmarks of the real thing - and with plenty of attitude to match. Technically at the top of his game, he is arguably producing the best cast work in the country as we speak. And not because he’s interested in the quantum competitive stakes (like the ‘I wanna win the Ranamok twice’ brigade.) He doesn’t connive to make work to win prizes (though he does win them nonetheless – he picked up this year’s Tom Malone), he is driven instead intuitively toward the bigger picture and a determined maintenance of unyeilding artistic integrity - resisting any attempts to steer his work towards the ‘safe-haven’ of the manipulated collectors’ bazaar. In other words, he refuses to play the game; he won’t be told what to make by his dealers, he won’t perform like the grateful trained monkey when offered a show and he won’t be brought to heel by those who cling grimly to their tenacious hold on the higher rungs of the glass food chain.
And all power to him for that, because it makes him a fine role model for the next generation of emerging hopefuls. He’s living proof that you can have a successful practice without resorting to the sychophantic scheming that’s become integral to advancement into the ranks of the a-list of Australian glass – the so called “succession” game. Butcher is not prepared to wait submissively for the nod of approval, and neither he should – he’s already eclipsed his ‘teachers’, if only they’d have the grace to concede as much. Technically his work is quite astonishing. It’s got the lot; mastery and control, exquisite tuning and finish, great conceptual resolution, intelligent design, sophisticated aesthetics…
But wait, there’s so much more – and the single most important element is ticker (aka courage/heart.) When Sabbia Gallery offered Butcher his latest show he accepted on the proviso that he had full artistic direction of the space and that he be allowed to exhibit in tandem with his long time confrère, painter Mathew Heaney (who, like Butcher, has no interest in contributing to the interior decor/designer slant of the current art market.) Purists at heart, both had chewed the art philosophic fat for years and had long talked of co-exhibiting in a show that afforded them a true measure of autonomy; more specifically, the freedom of a visually emotive discourse. Both were into Rothko, and wanted to make work that expressed the physical and emotional; work that reflected their personal ongoing struggles with life, death and the intractable universe. Both share, like Rothko, a healthy disdain for the stuffiness of bourgeois pretension and a keen sense of dissention (particularly of the anti-elitist variety). Neither has the stomach for ‘being managed’. They behave, in effect, as one always imagined artists should behave – before the latter-day era of professional practice contorted artists into designer-chic middle class conformist drones.
[Give us the scruffy angst-ridden boho prodigy any day, pl-ease...and Chick, we're happy to report, has already got the look down pat! n(Ed)]
In After the Object, the exhibiting credo is not unlike that of Rothko and Gottlieb’s in 1942; “We favour the simple expression of the complex thought.” Indeed, hinged on another quotation of Rothko’s, ”silence is accurate”, the show is an orchestration of mood that strikes just the right chord of (almost morbid)contemplation.
Setting themselves a limit of four pieces each, the formal spacing of the works transformed the gallery into a vault-like chamber (or, yes, a chapel even, if you prefer to stick with the Rothko strain) that lent a sense of archaic memorial to an otherwise conventional gallery space. The limited palette, loaded symbolism and emotive overtones are immediately decipherable; not because they’re obvious or clichéd but rather because they’re so sensitively, and astutely, handled. The block of fathomless black on the rusted cruciform (After the Object 1), for instance, is astonishingly powerful - and incredibly effective. We don’t need to know the specifics of the quasi-religious rationale behind the piece, we unerringly respond to the arcane nature of it regardless. And the finish on the glass – so highly polished – is nothing short of superb. This last aspect of Butcher’s practice carries equal weight in its ultimate success – above all else he understands the importance of finish. The pieces standing sentinel at either end of the gallery have the texture of very finely chiselled monumental stone; After the Object 4 glows at the entrance with the soft, matt luminosity of alabaster…
…while After the Object 3 keeps sombre watch from the opposite end of the room, restrained by a wide black border reminiscent of Victorian mourning paper…
The procession of glass is flanked by Heaney’s large canvasses, hanging the length of the room like huge windows to the darkening firmament; adding ever deeper notes of mournfulness in an unfolding tragi-drama. For Heaney, abstract painting is akin to sound and music and for the purposes of this exhibition he endeavoured to “create four works that would penetrate that same area of the psyche. That area beyond the rational.” The interregnum between mind and matter.
Heaney’s work most certainly hits the perfect atmospheric tone/pitch, making the show, from a curatorial point of view, highly successful. More importantly, the overall sensibility of the show transformed the venue into a bone fide contemporary art space as opposed to Sabbia’s usual modish craft gallery vibe. In its exhibition blurb Sabbia actually made quite a point of reiterating ”how unique”, “how unusual” the show was for their gallery – presumably in terms of it being a well integrated, carefully conceived and balanced curatorial hang. Perhaps they might re-evaluate their habitual modus operandi and consider the benefits of instigating the exception as the rule. (It’s not a commercially dangerous proposition, after all – three works in this show did sell, and for big bikkies, notwithstanding the squeeze of the GFC.)
Otherwise, we suspect, craft will sadly continue to find itself paley loitering at the fringe of contemporary art…(apologies to Keats and PK.)
Megan Bottari is a NSW based artist/writer/curator. She was offered no inducements, financial or otherwise, for this review apart from a $40 taxi fare in lieu of being picked up from the airport.
For snaps of the opening night go here.