When a ‘horse’ is not a horse
Appeal Staff Writer
The horse seems to have become a metaphor for those seeking freedom from the city or business, whether on the Nevada range or a place like Reno.
Of late, the equestrian has been the subject of movies (“The Horse Whisperer”), books (“One With the Herd”) and art. Artists such as Henri Matisse, Franz Marc, Rene Magritt, Toulouse-Lautrec, Da Vinci, Caravaggio, Durer and Rubens have created their versions of the horse. You can see prints of those artists’ work and others at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno.
You can also see the art of Montana artist Barbara Butterfield. On display are 14 of her large sculptures of horses made from found objects – branches, crumpled steel, metal stairsteps, about anything that she could put her mind and hands to. Most of these are from her personal collection, some rarely seen in public.
Of course, out in front of the museum at 160 W. Liberty St. you can see “Untitled (Nevada Horse)” that the museum bought in 2003.
Inside, in the spacious third-floor exhibition rooms, are 14 of her strangely lifelike creations, some of metal welded together, others of what appears to be wood but is actually bronze castings of the original wood pieces, carefully photographed after completion and disassembled for the casting.
At first glance, the wooden works seem to be just that – wood. But the originals were far too fragile to be shipped or sold (Butterfield sells worldwide to collectors and art museums). So after casting in bronze the pieces are put back together, following the earlier photos, and welded in place. Thus, it can be moved to buyers and museum shows. This is demanding, painstaking work. The wood is fragile, the casting process hot and difficult. One can wonder if there isn’t an art form easier to work in.
Some of the pieces on display are perhaps half-life size. Others are the size of a living horse. All have a haunting reality about them, brooding, frozen in time.
There’s a marvelous video that goes with the show, a series of interviews with Butterfield and sequences showing her at work and how the wooden works are created, taken apart, cast, and put back together. She is there every moment of creation, selecting the wood or metal, trying, testing to see how the piece fits into her design.
Why does she do little other than creating these marvelous pieces? “I have to do it,” she says simply in the video.
“My work is not so overtly about movement. My horses’ gestures are really quite quiet, because real horses move so much better than I could pretend to make things move.
“For the pieces I make, the gesture is really more within the body, it’s like an internalized gesture, which is more about the content, the state of mind or of being at a given instant. And so it’s more like a painting … the gesture and the movement is all pretty much contained within the body.”
In the video Butterfield not only shows her art, she also rides on the Montana plains around her ranch with precision and grace. She is quite obviously a “horse lady.”
One might ask, why go to all this trouble when we are surrounded by wild horses in Nevada. It’s like she says: she has to do it, just like Picasso had to create his strange figurative art, like Goya had to create his terrible war pictures. Art takes people down strange corridors into a different world.
In this case it’s the world of Butterfield’s world of horses, shaped a little differently, poised to leap into imaginative life.
• The museum has lots of extras to go with the Butterfield show. At the end of one room is a large board with six photos of Butterfield horses, divided into nine sections. Guests are invited to rearrange the parts into a new horse on the magnetic backing. Any pieces can be used to make a new horse.
• In the arts education room, visitors are offered large pieces of drawing paper and invited to create and display their own horse drawings. Along the wall are prints of artists drawing horses from around the world.
• And in one corner is a temporary room where the Butterfield video is played. It’s about 50 minutes long and well worth the time, either before or after wandering the show.