According to Holland Cotter, “certain winds of change could be blowing through the Met’s art-temple precincts” with the installation of works by Cree artist Kent Monkman. Read the article …
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.
How can we design communities that promote social engagement? The authors of an insightful article on ArchDaily, “Socially-Organized Housing: Biophilia, Connectivity, and Spirituality,” describe how incorporating natural and spiritual dimensions into city planning leads to well-being and a sense of connectedness.
Notable quote: “In ancient societies, an old tree, a large rock, prominent high ground, a particular stream or spring could be considered sacred (in the deepest religious sense), and thus protected from damage. Those societies built towns around sacred spaces, and endowed parts of what they built with a sacred meaning. Today, that quality is unfortunately dismissed as anachronistic.”
Edited by Andrew David Baker
Holli Harmon is a Santa Barbara artist who describes herself as a “contemporary traditionalist.” Some of her recent projects include “Portraits of the Central Coast,” a series of paintings documenting the lives of 19 local personalities, and “The River’s Journey,” a collective effort in which she and five other artists spent a year chronicling the Santa Ynez River.
Tell me about your new series, “Califia.”
Califia was the mythological goddess that California was named after. I’ve used the female figure to help me explore cultures and layers and how we see ourselves and how we represent ourselves. What do we remember of ourselves? Where are we going? But it’s still anchored in the land. So figure and landscape, but they’re more abstracted and there are multiple layers.
Describe one of the paintings.
L.A. Lies and Lawns was the first big one, and this was after a big discovery of Saturday Evening Post covers at Art From Scrap. I had done the water project, “The River’s Journey.” This skyline is from a city view that I took at the Getty Museum looking out over Los Angeles. This big western figure is kind of a representation of our Hollywood version of ourselves. A bikini-clad cowboy – the story of how Mullholland robbed the water from Northern California – I’m playing with imagery, saying this is stolen water. But is she the sheriff? Is she the villain? We don’t know. There’s a little girl up here in the clouds and she’s watering L.A. And this Saturday Evening Post story totally ties into the story that most of us hold in America that we all should have a white picket fence and a nice lawn, that that’s our lifestyle and that’s what we’ve been programmed to think. But in California, having green lawns is not really feasible or doable with our limited water resources – that’s one of our biggest wastes of water.
Pattern interests me. Pattern becomes like a paintbrush – it’s like “We have this bright, big sunny lifestyle” – the daises make me think of that. And yet I’ve gridded off into squares and I have circles and bubbles and these clouds are floating.
Which of the paintings had the longest time until you felt that it was finished?
Barbara and Ynez and the Chains that Bind was the second painting after I did some initial little gouaches. This is the Santa Ynez River. The backdrop is Lake Cachuma at its very lowest point. We had not had rain. There’s this big storm coming in. Barbara, this figure that is almost off of the canvas, is lost in the rain. The braid has turned into a chain. We’re so bound to Lake Cachuma and Santa Ynez for our water in Santa Barbara city, on the other side of the Santa Ynez Mountains. We’ve drilled three tunnels in order to import water into our community. We can’t survive without it. It is Santa Ynez becoming this beautiful woman, and Santa Barbara is beautiful, too, but she’s tied up with Ynez. It took a long time because I wasn’t sure – What am I doing? How does that look? What do I leave on? What do I take off? Is this figure too strong? Santa Ynez is more prominent than a lot of the other figures, but I’m letting them each speak to me. Each one will be different.
You’re weaving together portraits, landscape, and narrative. Does that come naturally or is that challenging for you?
What’s challenging is sometimes I say, “Holli, why are you making this so difficult? Why don’t you just do one thing?” I think all of this is a trajectory of my own art practice and what interests me. It’s interesting how I’m still a representational artist but there are abstract qualities to what I’m doing. I’m always exploring other mediums rather than saying, “This is what I do.” It’s more “What medium can I use to say what I want to say, or what’s interesting to me?”
Some of these Califia images actually have collage elements in them. I thought that was interesting, so I went and took a class with Susan Tibbles so I could learn more about that, looking at how other artists have used it. When you are learning something, not only are you looking at why you are choosing this method and what that medium offers you, but you have to learn the technical part of it – How can I do it? And it seems like I am always trying to learn the skills of the medium so if I want to use it, it is a tool in my toolbox.
You had this idea of water, but then this exploration of technique came into it?
Yes. Ten years ago, I’d done some work like this, with layers, painting on different surfaces, taking multiple figures, very abstracted. They’re just layered on. I did a couple of pieces a couple of decades ago with rodeo figures and bulls and cowboys and they were just a montage. So the Fibonacci spiral, I’m just coming back to it. I will use this until I am ready to move onto something else. But right now I am really intrigued with using the female figure and landscape to talk about who we are.
You said “It’s a trajectory of my own art practice and what interests me.” So what interests you?
I think I’m really recognizing how our world is changing. It changes at a faster pace. I’m hopefully only halfway through my life. So I have some perspective now of seeing things that are different but then seeing things that re-emerge, and then knowing that it’s changing again, it’s not going to be the same world in five years and ten years as it is today, in terms of the topics of discussion. But who we really are – you get a lot of clues from your past. I guess I’m interested in all of those things.
When you say it’s changing and it won’t be the same in five years – are you the sort of artist who is a moment crystallizer, as some people describe artists?
Holding the moment? Yes. And that probably gives me the perfect way to answer a previous question: I’m interested in all three, portrait, narrative, and landscape. Just take a landscape – I better hold onto this open space. I know with the history of population growth it may not stay open space. I’m going to appreciate it today in the present. It was held as open space because this has been land grant that was passed down through a family from when we used to be a Spanish colony. So I’m interested in how it stayed as an open space. But I might hint to other ideas: “Wow, there’s a big freeway overpass crossing over this, and this is our future, and what’s going to happen? Is it going to be covered with condos?” and having that conversation in the image.
Would you call your art political?
I think that I have social conversations. I think politics are a by-product of social conversations. Really, human elements are what interest me. I’m looking at this one idea here of a woman at the beach through seven images and they’re all from a different decade and a different expression of women. The social conversation is evident: how somebody dressed to go to the beach in the early 1900s is different than what we wear today, versus a very modernist marble sculpture that is collaged into it, as almost a Cubist form. But those are social conversations. How do we view women? How do we dress? How do we connect with our land and our ocean? Obviously everybody likes to be down by the water. So those are more human, humanistic.
How long did you gather ideas for the “Califia” series?
I would say this “Califia” project has been in gestation for at least a year, a year and a half. I did those little layered paintings a year and a half ago, and now I’m creating full-sized works and I’m still adding to it because I say, “Oh, that’s interesting, I think I want to create a painting about that. Or, I love this image – how can I use it?” I went and took this collage class, and out of that collage class there was a failed print, and I kept images of it as I built this up. I mounted it on a piece of board. And then I found these words – somebody had been selling doormats with California greetings: hola, hi, howdy, and aloha – which really captures the vibe in California. So that other painting with the vaquero, the female Spanish rider on the big horse, all of that background design is built out of these words. And then I added in haku, the Chumash word, their greeting, which is our first language in this region. But how all of those words hold a little part of ourselves, how we greet each other – so there’s social engagement.
Are you ever afraid that you might be straying into cultural appropriation?
I think I am completely straying into cultural appropriation. I hope that I am doing it in a way that I’m honoring those cultures, because that’s what I’m feeling when I’m uplifting it, I’m celebrating it. I’m hopefully bringing light to it in a positive way. I don’t think anything I’m making is something that is used for my gain. I’m trying to be a storyteller that shares what I find is beautiful. I had really great interns from UCSB also from Westmont college, on the “Portraits of the Central Coast project, and we had a lot of wonderful conversation about cultural appropriation. When are we appropriating? When are we celebrating? And it’s a great social engaging question. I don’t have the answer, but I’m trying to be true.
Are you post-modern enough that you don’t mind if someone is reading something else into your image, or do you have a little more ownership as the artist of saying, “Well, it’s a misunderstanding – which they are entitled to have – but really my intent was something else.”
If somebody were to sit down and write about my work and say, “She’s borrowing all of these commercial images, and it’s cultural appropriation” and it was a negative, derogatory message, I would want to have the forum to say, “This is where my intention was coming from.” I wouldn’t want somebody to be able to own and say what I’m trying to say. I don’t think that that’s fair. But I do think that whatever you bring as a viewer to a piece of work is your point of view, and it says more about you than it does about me. But that might be really fascinating to me, and if I like your point of view, I might be like, “Right on! Brand it!” Put it on that image. I’ll accept that.
So it’s intention with openness?
How would you define socially engaged art?
I think it’s when the artist is asking to connect to the viewer and we’re kind of posing the questions the way you’re posing the question to me. It’s “Let’s have a conversation: Do you see this? What do you see? Oh, you see that? OK, great. I wasn’t thinking of that but I can see how you engage with that.” And as we share our own story and somebody shares their story with us, we’re actually learning about ourselves.
So it’s maybe a process of co-constructing meaning?
Yeah, and I think every artist ultimately wants to have a conversation. We’re not making our art and hiding it under the bed. Most of us want to have it out in the world, breathing and having a conversation.