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Kent Anderson Butler is an artist and educator based in Los Angeles. He works in diverse mediums, and his current show, “From The Belly Of The Whale,” is on view at the Westmont Ridley-Tree Museum of Art in Santa Barbara.
Interview by Andrew David Baker
Tell me how “From The Belly Of The Whale” came about.
I’ve been doing a lot of research, looking at the relationship between the narrative of Moby Dick and the biblical narrative of Jonah and the whale. Not so much looking at them as these literal fictitious or factual narrative accounts, but looking at the metaphors and symbolism in those narratives and how they are juxtaposed against where we are as a contemporary culture, especially in the United States, especially with what’s going on socially and politically. How do we, as humans, respond to all that? This is an outcome of that research.
Describe one of the pieces.
There is a sculpture titled Drowning With Land Still In Sight. It has a twofold purpose. It’s the idea that we have those times in our life where we’re struggling and we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but we still feel like we’re drowning, we still can’t get to it. So this is an embodiment of that. That’s my torso inside of the wagon. I took a mold of my torso and cast it in resin plastic. It was a challenge to do this because I don’t do a lot of traditional sculpture. I wanted to use bold colors, so that’s why the wagon is powder-coated. I wanted the aquarium gravel, referencing water and the ocean. That’s another thing that is derivative both from a narrative aspect of the two stories, but also from a symbolic aspect of the two stories: water is a big part of the work. There’s a water element in Drowning With Land Still In Sight and in several of the videos in this exhibition. That’s a current theme also.
Kent Anderson Butler with his installation Drowning With Land Still In Sight.
Tell me about these quotes on the wall.
We Must Accept Finite Disappointment But Never Lose Infinite Hope is a phrase from Martin Luther King, Jr. that he gave in a speech in 1968 in Washington, D.C. It’s meant to contrast with There Is Dread In My Soul The White Whale Is The Wall, which is a direct quote from Moby Dick. For me, a lot of the text, when I think about it, alludes to symbolism and thinking about, in Moby Dick, what does the whale represent? The idea of the white whale – to me that could reference a lot of things, but I also think it could be indicative of our current president. I’m not trying to be too critical, but I want people to question those things. Because this is a direct quote, “the white whale is the wall,” the idea of the wall dealing with the border wall. That’s why these are juxtaposed against each other. And when you look at the colors in There Is Dread In My Soul, the vinyl is more like a holographic. When you look at it, it has a lot of depth – it kind of changes to that sea color of blue-green.
When people enter the gallery, the quotes appear recessed into the wall.
Yes, I think that’s really important conceptually. Especially, too, in the narrative, when the characters are fighting the whale and they’re in the water, and the idea that they’re going into the water, but in We Must Accept Finite Disappointment, the text is more reflective, so it’s supposed to allude to light and hope.
Anderson Butler used holographic vinyl to give quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Moby Dick a compelling liveliness.
What is one of the most personal works in the show?
For the exhibition, I did a series of six photographs titled The Unraveled Soul of the Spirit Spout. These are all shot with a 4×5 large-format film camera, and are printed on black velvet paper. I look at these as diptychs; they are kind of playing off each other. All of the work has a very personal journey for me. A lot of the work has been created fairly recently. Especially the photographs and the video pieces are indicative of the last year, my “season of Job” as I call it. I lost my job. That has been a big hit for my wife and me. A lot of this art is external from what has been going on.
Anderson Butler with two photographs from The Unraveled Soul of the Spirit Spout.
How did these pieces come from that experience?
There is a sense of vulnerability and honesty with the photos in The Unraveled Soul of the Spirit Spout. The reason why half of them are upside down is the idea that my life has been turned upside down. The ones that are upside down are more well-done technically, because they are more accurate technically. But the right-side up photos are the bare-bones proofs, untouched with no editing.
Anderson Butler with two photographs from The Unraveled Soul of the Spirit Spout.
You obviously put yourself in a lot of your work. Why is that important to your method or your message?
I think there are a lot of reasons behind that, but one is that a lot of the work revolves around ideas about the human body – because it’s very performative-driven, and there’s also an act of endurance to my work. I’m also really interested in thinking about the body in terms of its physicality and what happens to it as we get older, but then also this idea that it’s very ephemeral. As we age and get older, things start to break down, and by the time we are about to pass on, our bodies are completely deteriorated. But this idea comes from my faith: after I’ve passed on this earth, my soul is going to continue to live in another form. The French philosopher Teilhard de Chardin talks about instead of looking at ourselves as these physical beings trying to have a spiritual experience, that we’re really spiritual beings and we’re having a physical experience lived in the body on Earth. I think about that a lot.
But I also think about us as individuals and how we’re all very unique and we all have very different ideas and thoughts, and how they should be really valued – I think that’s so important. It’s unfortunate, because I think there are a lot of people out there who are not able to have as much of a voice as they should have. This might be a little stereotypical, but in some ways, being in Southern California we are privileged to an extent when it comes to thinking about things on a global or even a multicultural scale. Don’t get me wrong – Southern California and L.A. have their problems as well. But it’s totally different when you go to the Midwest or the South. I was in South Carolina and we went on this tour – it’s really interesting because the way they talk about the Civil War is so different than here, and racism is still going on in America. Seeing those kinds of issues, along with challenges faced by individuals who are in the LGBTQ communities, it’s really sad to me how people can still get it in their heads that it is OK to demean these people, to not give them rights, to criticize them. My feeling is always, if you don’t agree with their lifestyle or their thought process, or even with what they look like – which to me is really odd – OK, that’s fine, but you shouldn’t treat them any differently.
You talked about the idea of “endurance” in your work. What do you mean by that, or what is one of the pieces where endurance comes through or is woven into it?
I think that’s very indicative of my work in general. It’s more subtle in a lot of the work in this show. But there’s a certain aspect to the time that it takes for the body to do certain movements and actions.
Which of the pieces took the longest until you felt you were finished with it?
The videos From the Belly of Sheol and Call Me Ishmael are new pieces in that they were created this year. The footage is not super old, but was taken years ago. I had this show coming up, and when I found out my contract wasn’t going to get renewed, it was devastating. I felt like I was in such a bad place. I had no desire to do much work, but I had to because I knew I had this exhibition coming up. I started going through all my old footage I had never used throughout the last 15, 20 years. A lot of the footage really spoke to me. This piece, Call Me Ishmael, I shot in September 2014 in Georgia. I did an artist residency at The Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences for three months. This video is me crawling down this waterfall of steps in this landscape. It takes some time. It’s a little tiresome, so I have to rest. It’s a little confrontational too, because I’m looking at the viewer. But because it’s masked by solarization, it doesn’t create as much of a sense of urgency. I kind of wanted to use the solarization as a critique on popular culture. Way back when I first started creating videos, the cool thing to do with video was something like this. Now it’s like, you just don’t do that. I wanted to turn that on its head and say, no, it’s still OK to bring that aesthetic back into the forefront and make it just as important.
How would you define “socially engaged art”?
For me, socially engaged art is where an artist begins to think about what they’re creating, and instead of looking at it as “this is an art piece for me, and it’s a manifestation of what’s inside of me,” it’s more about that artist having a desire to create something to change the world. I’ve never put myself in that category; however, this particular body of work has allowed me to think about those things more. I do want to change people’s perception about things.