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Eric Butcher   |   Sweet Heresy

Patrick Heide Contemporary Art, 8 January to 8 February 2020

A review by Clare French

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

Sweet Heresy is Eric Butcher’s second solo exhibition at Patrick Heide Contemporary Art; he showed here previously in 2015.  

Butcher’s reductive, rule-based practice fundamentally consists of the repetitive adding and stripping back layers of graphite or oil in resin on aluminium, although the objects he makes take very different forms. He aims to constantly shift and disrupt the viewer’s expectations of his work. This exhibition’s inclusion of newer paintings, and works on paper in particular, achieve this, even for viewers familiar with Butcher’s work. Sweet Heresy includes a variety of Butcher’s forms, inviting the viewer to consider relationships between surfaces, objects and the spaces they occupy.  This offers lots of lovely surprises, and rewards the viewer for long, engaged perusal.

Butcher’s skill, ability and place within his field are well established. However, his work wears its technical and art-historical mantles lightly. I was struck by the many unexpected, clever and playful moments happening amongst what is rigorous and serious.   A sense of lightness  hovers around the exhibition as Butcher allows his pieces to wander and be curious, testing architectural details and light conditions, and playing serious visual games with the viewer.

The primary focus of Butcher’s artistic and curatorial practice is the creation of large site-specific installations. In this context, it is intriguing to see how Sweet Heresy operates in the domestic context of the Patrick Heide gallery.  

My initial response to the installation of the painted sculptural pieces E/R. 884 & 894, E/R. 883 and E/R. 910 was to laugh.  These works feel like slight outsiders desperately keen to get in to the party that is the building’s architecture, and oblivious to the fact that they may be forcing themselves into places and spaces where they might not quite fit.

E/R. 884 & 894 (019-20) Oil and resin on extruded aluminium section. 27 x 52 cm. © Clare French

Are E/R. 884 & 894 just slightly too heavy, too intensely coloured to ‘match’ the white walls and column?  The extreme diagonal shadows they cast feel playful, making the pieces themselves seem somehow sweetly wonky.

E/R. 883 is hung on a small section of corridor wall between the upstairs gallery room and the gallery kitchen.   This draws instant attention to an everyday, back-stage, ‘non-art’ part of the gallery, as well as reminding us that the gallery building used to be a domestic dwelling.  E/R. 883 feels odd, plonked on the wall: hung in a slightly ‘wrong’ place, slightly too big for the space and slightly overcrowded by the heater and phone nearby.

E/R. 883 (2015-19)  Oil and resin on extruded aluminium section. 59 x 48 cm. © Clare French

E/R. 910, competing with the scattered joy and sparkle of I/R. 882 (below), thrusts its way upwards from its lowly hanging position towards the light, although this turns out to be a window looking out over an ordinary back yard.  Knowing that these smaller sculptural, architectural metal pieces are offcuts from larger works adds to their sense of being interlopers or pretenders.

E/R. 910 (2017-19) Oil and resin on extruded aluminium section. 20 x 68 cm. © Clare French

Sweet Heresy’s sense of play really takes off up the staircase walls.  I/R. 882 is a scattering of about 70 small square aluminium paintings, hung intuitively to draw the viewer’s eye up and along, and encouraging engagement with the space of the staircase itself.

Installation shots of I/R. 882. (2019) Oil and resin on aluminium block. 100 pieces, 10 x 10 x 2.5 cm each (60-70 currently on display). Dimensions variable. © Clare French

P/R. 818  (2017-20) Oil, resin, graphite and acrylic gel on aluminium composite board. 125 x 300 cm

© Patrick Heide Contemporary Art

This work could be described as the ‘hardest’, most mechanical, or even the most digital-looking work in the show. But this notion is instantly complicated by the reflection of P/R. 818’s vertical stripes and panels in the spines of the books opposite. Similarly, P/R. 770 hangs upstairs in the office, another ‘back-stage’ setting, and its vertical and horizontal elements mirror the books and flat packages on the shelves opposite.

The curatorial skill in combining elements of the work, the architecture, and the light, in order to constantly shift and expand the viewer’s experience of all three, is in evidence throughout.  P/R. 850, which hangs above the fireplace upstairs, was visible before I entered the room, reflected in one of  I/R. 882’s blank aluminium pieces in the hallway.

I/R. 882. (2019) (detail) Oil and resin on aluminium block. 100 pieces, 10 x 10 x 2.5 cm each. © Clare French

The gallery is in a multi-storeyed building, and this is used to great advantage in Sweet Heresy.  Viewers must retrace their steps down the stairs, back through the exhibition, inevitably seeing the work in new ways, challenging what they saw, felt and thought on the way up.  

Butcher’s constant encouragement to re-view also occurs through his playing with perceptions of the surfaces of the works themselves and the walls on which they hang.  At first glance, P/R. 850 is a single painting.  Only on closer viewing does it become clear that it comprises two separate panels, hanging closely together but with a discernible gap between them.  Butcher plays this game using light and colour.  The panels are side-lit from the window, causing a shadow from the right-hand edge of the left panel across the gap.  At a distance this appears as part of a single, monochrome, vertically striped painting.

P/R. 850 (2018). Graphite and acrylic gel on aluminium. 56.5 x 62 cm each. © Clare French

Once registered, this realisation sends the viewer back across the room to P/R. 818

to discover that rather than two panels, as I had initially read it, the painting consists

of fifteen panels, quite visibly joined.

P/R. 818  (2017-20) (detail) Oil, resin, graphite and acrylic gel on aluminium composite board. 125 x 300 cm. © Clare French

Light is also essential in activating the layers of translucent colour that is another Butcher hallmark. For Patrick Heide, rather than being the integral, aggressive main focus of his work, Butcher’s colour is gentler, less intrusive, operating instead as one of the variable, chance elements in his practice.

Reductive art paradoxically imposes limitations on itself, in order to create work of depth, richness and nuance that seeks to evoke engaged observation and multiple responses in viewers. Similarly, rule-based artists often acknowledge or actively facilitate chance occurrences within their practice. Butcher does this in order to create a state of flux and impart the possibility of change within his work. The unexpected can occur in material, technical, durational and human ways. Butcher regularly and literally transforms his own work; re-using, re-purposing and re-hanging both whole and left-over elements of his pieces, maintaining a state of ongoing flux across his practice.

In P/R. 852 for example, on the left on entering the downstairs gallery, the manufacturers’ marks are visible on the aluminium surface. This is because Butcher wasn’t happy with what he’d done on the ‘front’ of the aluminium sheet, and turned it over so as not to waste it. Even then, it is merely by chance that the text shows; it could just as easily have been covered by graphite.

Installation shots of P/R. 730 (2016) Oil and resin on aluminium. 80 x 108/124 x 70 cm.

E/R. 884 & 894 (2019-20) Oil and resin on extruded aluminium section. 27 x 52 cm.

P/R. 726 (2016) Oil and resin on aluminium. 70 x 89/124 x 70 cm. © Patrick Heide Contemporary Art

P/R. 852 (2018) Graphite, acrylic and acrylic gel on aluminium. 50 x 35cm

© Clare French

G/R. 904 (2019) Acrylic and carborundum on collaged paper and card. 38 x 29 cm

G/R. 895 (2019)  Ink on blind embossed paper with cut-outs. 37 x 26 cm

G/R. 903 (2019) Acrylic, carborundum and bolts on paper. 37 x 26 cm

all © Clare French

Butcher’s paper works, which are given a strong presence at Patrick Heide

Contemporary Art, tend to be particularly exploratory, experimental and fluid. The

fragmentary, layered works on paper employ a wide range of techniques including

painting, drawing, collage, blind embossing and cut outs, and of materials. Some

works on paper also serve as sketches for large scale installations, introducing new

elements of chance into the outcome of the larger work and its curation. The

modular hang of the paper works on the ground floor, so that they hover between

being a series and a single work, also mirrors ideas of multiplicity and flux.

Sweet Heresy showcases to wonderful effect Butcher’s sharp, engaged focus on making, materials, detail, light and environment, and his high level of awareness of, and sensitivity to, relationships, change and feeling.  His reductive, rule-based practice results in works that simultaneously occupy multiple, shifting points along a range of spectra.  

With many thanks to Eric Butcher and Patrick Heide for their generous contributions.

These are fun and bright, and Butcher is not afraid to reference IKEA-esque interior design, hobby painting and the decorative.  These references by no means make fun of the everyday, but invite instead an expanded response to the paintings as art.  Again, their ‘art’ credentials are impeccable, displaying high levels of technical and curatorial skill, and a wonderful use of colour and natural light.  

On the left, in the upstairs gallery room hangs P/R. 818, across from a central fireplace, flanked by two bookshelves.

Light also enables Butcher’s work to achieve its constant sense of hovering and shimmering; it feels almost in motion, another lovely deviation from the notion of abstract, rule-based work being rigid or fixed.  In P/R. 730 and P/R. 726 a vertical, plain piece of aluminium sits on top of, and at right angles to, a lower painted piece. The top panel sits further away from the wall, floating above the painted sheet.  The plain, pale aluminium is read as a light material and is highly reflective, and this creates the sense of hovering movement which is intensified when the natural light, shifting and changing, falls across the pieces from the windows.

E/R. 884 (2019-20) (detail) Oil and resin on extruded aluminium section. 27 x 52 cm

© Clare French

I/R. 882. (2019) (detail) Oil and resin on aluminium block. 100 pieces, 10 x 10 x 2.5 cm each

© Clare French