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New Work by Kyle Butler at Nina Freudenheim Gallery

"Unsteady Skyline 2" by Kyle Butler at the Nina Freudenheim Gallery.

Unreal Estate

How long does an artist have to be in this area to achieve significant milestones in our art community? Well, if by “significant” you mean having your work purchased for the collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, exhibiting at the Burchfield Penney Art Center and Castellani Art Museum, and having solo exhibitions at Buffalo Arts Studio, Nina Freudenheim Gallery, and Exhibit-A (a commercial gallery in Corning), and you are Kyle Butler, then the answer is about two and a half years.

That is how long 25-year-old Butler, who came to Buffalo from his home state of Michigan to complete his MFA at UB, has been here. It would be an understatement to say that he has been prolific during his brief time here in Western New York: His paintings have also been in member and/or group exhibitions at Hallwalls, Big Orbit, CEPA, El Museo Gallery, and Rochester Contemporary Art Center; he has performed at Just Buffalo Literary Center, Squeaky Wheel, Soundlab, Artists and Models and Peep Show; he has sent work to Detroit for a solo exhibition at Wayne State University and to Falkoping, Sweden for inclusion in a media arts festival, and been included in the publication New American Paintings. And those are just the highlights.

The chameleonic Butler works in a variety of artistic media including video, music, and performance, but it is his evocative paintings and drawings, broadly seen in the recent Beyond/In Western New York exhibition, that have garnered the most attention. Nina Freudenheim considered them the “standout” work of that entire exhibition, and the result, in fairly short order, is the current solo exhibition at her gallery of new work by this emerging young artist who many see as being in the early stages of a promising career.

The exhibition consists of primarily two series—mixed-media works on wood panel and graphite drawings—related by their common focus on features found in urban environments. These highly refined and consistent bodies of work demonstrate that Butler continues to successfully fine-tune his sensitive vocabulary of mark-making.

The meticulously detailed drawings of aerial views of urban streetscapes with their interweaving roadways are at first glance accurate and sensible. Careful examination however unravels their logic and reveals that the labyrinth of oddly connected thoroughfares seems more intent on dividing than joining. The homes and structures that they entangle actually appear in danger of being strangled. The isolation of neighborhoods that results from unplanned urban sprawl is perhaps best expressed in the poetically titled work Moat, oatm, atmo, tmoa, moat, which represents urban communities as densely populated, adjacent yet separate islands that are the bane of advocates of smart growth. The dissolving edges of all of these drawings effectively communicate the seemingly infinite nature of the phenomenon they depict.

Most of the works on wood panel can be read as commentaries on urban decay, or, as the artist describes, “the metaphorical potential of the pockmarked landscape.” What is most intriguing about the imagery is its enigmatic nature. Are we seeing glimpses of decay by neglect or willful destruction? New Monument, a skyscraper that seems to be sloughing its skin (or is it being pulled off?), is an ideal example of an urban structure caught in transition. Underneath lies the inelegant reality of the form, a grid of wood lath that has more in common with a farm building than the iron infrastructure of urban architecture. That “disconnect” takes our perception of these works to another place—one that allows us to ponder the metaphors alluded to by these elegantly rendered compositions.

The work is in part about the interplay between chaos and control. When Butler begins to edit his imagery further, so much so that the positive and negative spaces of his subject matter become indeterminate, the results are masterful. What appears to be solid forms at a distance, characterized by the grids and variations of gray coloration, are in reality fragments of the skeletal substructure, that are revealed once their skins—visible at several points as clinging folds of fabric—are removed.

These are, after all, imaginary structures—amalgamations of what you might expect skyscrapers in close proximity to look like. But recalling the lavish draftsmanship in his pencil drawings, you can also sense to pure pleasure the artist experienced in creating these improvisational renderings that manipulate the physicality of the structures according to his whims.

The wood panel surface for the mixed works is an ideal substrate for these artworks, and that material becomes an integral component of each piece. Butler uses wood stain sparingly to bring out the inherent organic linear structure of the wood grain to serve as a counterpoint (and sometimes a foil) to the line structures that comprise his rendered and painted forms.

While it may seem that I have just described works that are packed with movement and energy, the effect is actually often the opposite. The neutral color palette, frequently spare use of space, and ordered compositions exude a sense of calmness and meditation. These artworks are highly satisfying to view and, judging from the fact that over half of the works in the exhibition (which remains on view through May 19) have sold, they have justifiably been very well received.

gerald mead

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