Writing and Reviews

The Medium and the Message - Alex Coles

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Paul Butler’s paintings perpetually shift between emotional registers. The
most noticeable is between the paintings playing out quotidian scenes with a
satiric sense of humour and those commenting on recent world events with a
scathing sense of respite. But the diversity in the work is always contained
by a unity attained through Butler’s sense of touch. Not just the routine
painters’ sense of touch Butler’s is particular to him in being cunningly
borrowed from drawing. The result is a stirring play off between the medium
of paint and the message conveyed through it.

The paintings currently fall into at least four discernable categories. a
suite of monochromatic sketches of people in interiors; two blood red
paintings reflecting recent world events; a series of field paintings with
abstract squares floating on them; and an ongoing series of dogs. The first
two series’ will be discussed in depth here.

The monochromatic interior scenes are some of the most engaging paintings
Butler has fashioned so far. Each one of them is cut with a state of high
angst and laced with a cruel sense of wit. These qualities are evidenced in
the subject matter he chooses and compounded in the way it is rendered. In
one of the paintings a lean and suited gallerist assumes centre-stage with
his dark rimmed glasses, slim tie and wry smile. Only gallerists can do this
smile. Various sycophants collect around him: a lady, perhaps a collector,
stands erect just behind his left arm as if she is waiting for an
introduction; to his right a large cumbersome gentleman, surely a Dean at
some art school, reaches for his hand. The gallerist just smiles on; the
more you look the wryer the smile gets. Around this cluster of figures there
is the usual hullabaloo common to most private views. Bottom right, the part
of the evening usually reserved till after the private view is over - the
obligatory pub scene - encroaches. A bulbous nosed figure thrusts his drink
forwards as if in anger at the gallerist who still wears the wry smile
regardless. The painting is executed more like a sketch than a traditional
painting; the pace is much faster, the brushwork looser, both direct results
of the gloss paint which works to speed up the surface. Some of the lines
are almost feverish, lending the painting an air of anxiousness, but humour,
too, since many of the figures’ facial and bodily characteristics are
exaggerated by the painterly technique in a fashion akin to a satiric
cartoon. The manner of execution is, in other words, perfectly fitting for
its subject.

Another painting in the series is far more chaotic. Gone are the darker
passages delineating suits and shoes that anchored the previous painting and
instead the closer-toned surface is awash with frenzied movement. The
fluidity of the drawing is once again achieved through the gloss medium as
marks skate across the surface in all directions. The drawing in the
previous painting begins to appear quite controlled in contrast to the
looseness in the present one. At first glance the painting appears like an
abstract sketch akin to the automatic drawings fashionable in the 50s. The
apparent opacity of the medium soon gives way however as the lines and
squiggles begin to articulate a subject matter. Eventually it becomes
evident that what is being depicted here is a court scene. Towards the top
of the centre of the scene there sits a judge, his face slack and toothless.
As far as it is discernable amidst the painterly blur, in front of him there
unfolds a scenario between four figures he is apparently there to abdicate
over. Rotating around them in anti-clockwise fashion, first there is a
portly bespectacled figure with a tuft of hair who waves his arm as if to
plead to the judge’s sense of virtue. Next there comes an unremarkable
character, squat in a cap. To his immediate right a cumbersome figure with a
mouth full of teeth gesticulates with his arm as if in self-defense. Top
right a naked woman appears almost like a mirage. Is this the figure
everyone is arguing about? It is difficult to tell as the felicity of the
medium kicks in again and the marks speed the beholder back to the first
character in the scene.

Two blood red paintings form part of a different series. In one of the
paintings the phrase ‘God is Love’ anchors the entire composition. A coat of
arms, clasped by the claws of the American eagle, rises above it. Various
figures surround the phrase as if in abeyance - it is difficult to tell with
any precision since they are obscured by a painterly technique that once
again blurs linear contour and so interrupts linear narrative. Where in the
two previous paintings an abundance of line resulted in its coagulation,
here line and tone are far more controlled. Linear surface movement replaced
by large areas of saturated colour means that the painting is much slower.
The effect it has on the beholder is therefore quite different. Nearer to a
painting by Munch rather than a political sketch, it is much more somber,
harrowing even. The medium is once again judiciously motivated in the
direction of the subject matter.

The other painting fashioned through a similar technique also uses the eagle
as an anchoring motif. On this occasion the eagle, flanked by flying horses
and trumpet playing cherubs, drops to the back of the composition. Assuming
centre-stage is a large circular table in which a heart pulsates. Around the
table assorted dignitaries debate. Debate what though? The future of the
world? While many of the figures resemble those in Nixon’s administration –
portly balding figures with intimidating Kissinger-like horn rimmed
spectacles - there is the sense that the painting refers more to the recent
political shenanigans of the neo-cons of the Bush administration. The faces
of some of the president’s men are flecked with green, lending them a more
gruesome air as it clashes with the deep red colour of the rest of the
surface. The ambivalence and uncertainty that results works on the mind like
a strategy adopted from a horror film. The overall sense is one of disgust
further enhanced by the pulsating deep blood-red colour.

Key to Butler’s paintings then is the symbiotic relationship between
painterly technique and subject matter. Where often painters sacrifice one
in the name of the other, in his paintings they work in empathy to enforce
one another. This strategic counterpoint between the two is indeed unduly
impressive and goes to prove how a message, whether political or otherwise,
can only be achieved through a convincing use of the medium.

Alex Coles