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Artist turns to jazz music (and album covers) to get his groove back

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/6/2015 (803 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Winnipeg artist Paul Butler has been cast in many roles over his career (including a recent, abbreviated run as contemporary curator at the WAG), but in his most memorable performances, collage has always taken centre stage. Collage is a group production by definition, however, and it's sometimes hard to make out a singular artistic "voice" above the chatter of cut-and-pasted sources.

As it happens, ideas about authorship (and, by extension, ego) are old hat for Butler. His work frequently indulges, tongue in cheek, in both the pretensions of a personality-driven art world and the vapid affirmations of self-help culture. While the results are often playfully self-absorbed (this is a man who hard-bound seven volumes of his daily to-do lists and presented them as artworks), Butler is perhaps best known for his travelling Collage Party, a free-for-all of collaborative art-making meant to knock art off its pedestal, level the playing field, and get people over themselves and working together.

Paul Butler: Words Fall Short

Paul Butler: Words Fall Short

Paul Butler: Words Fall Short

Paul Butler: Words Fall Short

Paul Butler: Words Fall Short

Paul Butler: Words Fall Short

Paul Butler: Words Fall Short

Paul Butler: Words Fall Short

Words Fall Short, Butler's first hometown solo show in a decade, finds him navigating these same impulses as he emerges from a period of artistic malaise. Feeling stuck in his creative process and looking to get his groove back, he turned, like generations of beatniks and suburban teenagers before him, to jazz music, combing record bins for inspiration and raw material.

What resulted was a series of collage-based works that remix the covers of old LPs and attempt to embody the inspired spontaneity of the music itself. A trio of physical collages maintains the form and scale of the original sleeves, preserving their physicality and intimacy, while a further six digital enlargements emphasize form and pattern, hinting at affinities with abstract painting.

Butler orchestrates staccato breakdowns of recognizable imagery and rhythmic plays of shape and colour, but the strength of his approach is best revealed in surgical removals. Much like a past series of redacted text-only exhibition ads, some sleeves are cut back until only crisp abstraction remains. In several of the most compelling images, musicians' silhouettes give way to ecstatic, spatially ambiguous fields of visual dazzle.

Jazz has always had a collage sensibility (or maybe I have that backwards), stitching fragments of the American Songbook into a coherent whole, animating them with improvisation and ornament, syncopation and elision. The demands of live, improvised collaboration also place an important check on individual noodling.

The newest work in the show abandons the album-cover conceit, a loosening of parameters framed in an accompanying text as a "significant breakthrough." If that's the case, one has to wonder if Butler likes what he found on the other side.

Listless without the propulsive constraints of rhythm and structure, the motif of the erased subject persists, but in a decidedly less blissed-out form. We see the Mona Lisa effaced by ocean waves, a baroque dandy obliterated above the knee by an haze of ornament, a pinup girl and two nude models blacked out by other artworks. The prints are lovely, but they suggest certain levelling out, where not just words but everything -- music, images -- "falls short."

Butler's exhibition is the first at Lisa Kehler Art and Projects, the former Actual Gallery director's new space in the East Exchange and an exciting addition to Winnipeg's cultural landscape. While the gallery's permanent space at 171 McDemot Ave. is still in the last stages of construction, you can get a taste of what's to come at LKAP's temporary home on the top floor. Words Fall Short closes July 4.

 

Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist and writer.

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