Writing and Reviews

Neo Cons and Dogs - Tana Wollen

Article text
If uncertainty and ambiguity thread through Paul Butler’s latest group of
paintings, the power to destroy, control or menace is its most unequivocal
subject. In blacks, whites and greys (newsprint tones) swirling figures are
weighted with the symbolism of caricature and the threat that anonymity can
portend. The Neo-Cons stalk behind symbols – donkey, seraphim, a soaring
eagle, the Masonic significance of the New York Herald Tribune banner now
bitterly redolent of US-instigated conflict in the Middle East. In The
Boardroom sedentary figures emanate power; around these dogs of war springs
the chaos their snarled decisions unleash. Their spectacle frames and lenses
are so thick and brooding they must actively prevent any possibility of
vision. Transparency? Here?

Artistic vision or expression receives no gentler treatment. A corporate
boardroom player/buyer, introduced to artists at a gallery opening in The
Introduction finds equally venal company. Artists and fellow liggers are
pissed, vomit and lurch in a fog. Caveat spectator. In Court, where Butler
appears to given Rowlandson’s spirit most rein, the blur and tangle between
judge, judged and court room paraphernalia express the law’s brick-wall
obduracy. There’s just no clear way through. Colour here’s in a binary,
dysfunctional mess, the lines and brushwork clash the judge’s punitive,
legalistic discourse with the Brit-Yob’s F-ing indignation.

Tensions bristle. In Meteorite, cataclysmic exploding gases are barely
contained by the canvas, the intense conflagration equally matched by deep
cobalt. In others, frustration climbs slow crescendos. In Butler’s homages
to Rowlandson there are blasts of table-thumping anger. His dogs sniff
edgily, making the familiar suspect. However, this body of work is not just
emotive: tensions are achieved and held through restraint, by compressing
contradictory impulses; the frames contain opposing forces.

Each of these paintings, for instance, suggests movement – but caught and
stilled. There are organic forms held by hard lines and edges; the painterly
is yoked to the graphic. Whites, greys and blacks dance with colour;
exuberance is lashed with irony.
Many of these paintings are potent with narrative yet expose its absence.
Nine and a Half Screens invokes the flow of TV images constantly assailing
us by lifting a series out of the flow, separating and freeze-framing them;
they each hint at the narratives which precede and succeed them. Each image
is different – none is the same white, pink or grey tone as any other – but
its significance is missing. They don’t inform, either individually or
collectively, yet seem to be connected across the darkness by dynamic
streaks of gloss, flashing in from another world, just passing through.

These paintings trouble; they imply meaning but pull us in to disturbing
uncertainty, urging the questions ‘Where are we?’ and ‘How the hell did we
end up here?’

At first glance, The Pilgrimage seems to transpose a contemporary image
(figures familiar to us from TV of hordes on the move, refugees or
protesters, perhaps) into apocalyptic archetypes. Images of crowds are now
so familiar and frequent they’ve become meaningless. But, the painting’s
ambiguities are troubling. This crowd has its collective back to us, yet
each figure is an individual. Are these whole populations purposeful, on the
run, or ignorant herds driven unwitting and compliant to disaster? Are these
figures grey or do they emit their own purple-red? Are they reflecting the
glorious sunset of a happy ending, or absorbing furnace heat?

Butler’s series of Blue Skies invokes ideals or dreams but fences them
within flat right-angles and situates them in troubling spaces. If the blue
squares are perfection, some mythic wide-blue-yonder, is the black and white
pastoral or post-holocaust industrial? Can the green be a green and pleasant
land? Is the pink our pink of health or is it just virulent enough to
suggest raw wound beneath a burn?

Functionaries of power in courts and boardrooms lurk in monochrome spaces.
In Director, Butler contracts the interior atrophy of a corporate world with
a vibrant city outside. Our look is permitted no rest but drawn down and up
and out: down onto the despondent, suited man up to a pinkly illuminated
space held by strong vertical lines. This space could perhaps in other hands
be a liberating thought or dream space but here its vacancy and the slumped
man within it strongly suggest defeat. Vitality has been sucked out of this
space and thrown out. Out there, through the office window, there’s all the
promise of a coloured night sky in one of Butler’s cities.

These are frenetic spaces, lit by vivid blue or red skies, blinking neon
signs and vermilion tail-lights on the move. As urban animals we can find
familiar places in these scapes, not as still outsiders looking on, but as
part of the fleeting, transient sights glimpsed, rushing one after the
other, as we move through. The cities’ solid, monumental forms – buildings,
petrol pumps, flyovers – only exist to be passed at speed. Vibrant, bright
air or oppressive murk define these cities’ characters; human beings are
their isolated accoutrements and move – refuel or phone – with the sole
purpose of moving on.

The main inhabitants, the chiefs of Butler’s cities are dogs, and in this
collection they have a series of their own, prowling between domestic
companionship and feral scavenging. These dogs work further tensions and
ambiguities. They are proud life forces, corporeal and strong; they are also
mysterious, hinting at hidden, invisible worlds within the city, ghostly
archetypes saluting the geological forces packed in stone, tarmac, cement.
They are dignified, yet verminous; inquisitive yet defensive. They own the
city’s space but look as though they’ve been captured on surveillance
camera. Unlike the Neo-Cons, these dogs may not bite. But would you risk
your hand to feed one?

Tana Wollen