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Art: Horse Sense

Photograph by Robert Wedemeyer

Born on the day of the 75th Kentucky Derby (the winning Thoroughbred was called Ponder), artist Deborah Butterfield has turned a love of horses into an artistic obsession. “That’s my formal excuse—the Kentucky Derby,” she says. “But truly, the first thing I saw that mattered to me was a horse. Suddenly there was something really worth seeing.”

After shifting her focus from veterinary medicine to art in her college years, she began centering her work around the animals and experimenting with various media. “I tried not to be a dumb horse girl, because everyone made fun of you if you made horse art in college,” she says. “So I ended up making a horse that was a kind of self-portrait. Doing a human figure was too direct and corny—I wanted to present things more allegorically.”

An early sculpture from 1976 made of mud, paper, and twigs evinced her exceptional gift for realism and scale. Then came a mud horse covered in sticks, which led to cagelike silhouettes crafted from intertwined bronzed branches, and equines made of scrap metal. Greatly varying personalities emerged, ranging from tender specimens that quietly stand or nod to metal beasts that resemble elegant wreckage lying vulnerable on the floor.

Butterfield uses only found materials—mostly wood and metal and the occasional tire. She begins with a four-legged armature (or “canvas,” as she calls it), fills in the guts, and finishes each time with the head and neck. The San Diego native sculpts at her ranch in Bozeman, Mont., and in her studio in the mountains above Kailua-Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii. At both properties, a slew of accomplished mares and feral horses ground and inspire her.

When she goes into the studio to work, she first sweeps the floor, then begins putting scrap metal or sticks in piles. Ultimately, she says, she “tries to find good piles that attempt to live up to the beauty of the animal.”

Butterfield and her assistant, Walt Zidack, do all the welded sculptures together by hand. Her wood constructions require more care: Once finished, they are taken to the Walla Walla Foundry in Washington, where they are documented and disassembled. Fabricators then make a plaster mold for every stick, burn out the wood, and pour in molten bronze. The cooled bronze pieces are meticulously reassembled to match the original wood composition. All told, the artist says, it takes 20 different people three months to finish one bronze.

From April 9 to May 9, Butterfield’s new horses will be shown at the L.A. Louver gallery in Venice, Calif., which names among its roster of artists David Hockney, Ed Moses, Joel Shapiro, and John McCracken. Priced between $80,000 and $350,000, the artworks will include several larger-than-life bronzes, one oversize steel piece, some smaller bronzes, and welded copper and steel figures. These pieces, along with earlier works and others photographed in situ, will be part of a book the gallery is producing to accompany the show. Specifically for the exhibition, Butterfield has added two woods to her repertoire: burned madrone from an Oregon forest fire and aspen from her Montana property. “The bronze retains the exact features of the wood, down to each knot,” she says. “The characteristics of the different woods are analogous to the characteristics of different types of horses.”


L.A. Louver, 310.822.4955, www.lalouver.com

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