Astir: Tom Butter at Rafius Fane Gallery

 Installation view, Tom Butter, Astir, Rafius Fane Gallery, Boston, MA, photo by Lucy Pullen


Tom Butter
Rafius Fane Gallery, Boston, MA
Nov 6 – December 26, 2015


I am trying in both my painting and sculpture to get them to offer “just enough”: not too much, maybe sometimes “not quite enough.” This state is precarious, but also fresh and full of possibilities. “Just enough” implies a conditionality I am really interested in–it feels like what we constantly are negotiating about in our lives, to me.

—Tom Butter in an interview with Alicia DeBrincat in ArtFile Magazine (2014)

In Astir, Tom Butter’s sculptures and paintings enliven the space with movement—literal, gestural, textural, metaphorical, and figurative. This little gem of a show places sculptures, many of which move, in thoughtful juxtaposition with paintings. The sculpture titled “Watching” presides over the show. At just over 8 feet tall and 15 feet wide, it is the most monumental of the sculptures. Simple materials—steel and vinyl—combine to create a solid yet airy, stationary yet mobile, presence. Supported by triangular trusses, delicate steel armatures extend broadly, elegantly, into space; from them dangle clear sheets of vinyl of graduated lengths that catch the light (and, intriguingly, occasionally the ghostlike reflection of the viewer). “Watching” comes to life when you step on a foot pedal: animated by a motor, the long arms rotate around the central axis in measured slow motion—punningly, not unlike the mechanism of a watch. From many angles, you can see the rest of Butter’s pieces through the transparencies—in a sense, they serve as windows on the show. And as one walks around “Watching,” watching it move, the shifting, dangling panels of vinyl both establish and disrupt space, inviting the viewer in, but denying entry by virtue of their movement.

“Watching” evokes dignified, time-honored structures we recognize on an almost visceral level—the trusses of bridges, childhood erector sets, the arched steel columns of train stations. The intentionally perfectly imperfect sculpture “Glitch” brings the viewer back to the present moment with—pun intended—a twist: a thin, spiral-shaped pillar of felt resembling an oversized screw hangs down the middle of a slender, hollow steel truss (articulated with the recurring zigzag motif). Activate the motor, and the felt begins to slowly spiral, appearing to corkscrew ever downward. After a while, though, the hypnotically smooth spiraling hiccups: because Butter has left the bottom of the felt long, the action inevitably encounters the eponymous glitch with regularity. It feels, every time, both surprising and, to this viewer, amusing. (Once you see the glitch for the first time, you want to stick around and wait for the next, and the next; the glitch becomes a Main Event—tension and release.) 

Hung next to “Glitch,” the painting “Through and Through” seems to distill the essence of its companion sculpture: strongly gestural, its swirls evoke the coiled energy of the motor-driven “screw,” as well as the tension inherent in watching for the “glitch.” As in all of the paintings, swaths of color have been applied to aluminum with a brio that celebrates motion and texture—the eddying curls create a depth of space that invites the viewer to enter and explore. A thin, pale-flesh-colored, U-shaped line seems to offer a way in, or through; all of the paintings include similar invitations.

Installation view, Tom Butter, Astir, Rafius Fane Gallery, Boston, MA, photo by Lucy Pullen

“Big Baby,” too, invites a sustained look. At about waist height, a Styrofoam sphere reminiscent of a pommel horse is draped in a visibly hand-seamed “blanket” of mottled gray felt. The sphere hangs on a horizontal spindle—which is supported by finely wrought steel buttresses tapering to points that appear far too delicate to sustain the mass of the sculpture. The pinkish-cream Styrofoam form, punctuated at its center with a nipple-like bolt, resembles a large breast… the organic mated with the industrial. Step on the floor pedal, and “Big Baby” rotates slowly, as does the loosely hanging felt—mechanically ruffling, but never, as one might hope, swaddling the baby. The organic and homespun wrangle with the jangle of the machinery, offering up both pathos and humor.

A few feet away, “S. Machine,” another hollow steel truss, flirts with other modalities. It is lightly stuffed with a pink gauzy material evoking the feminine; dangling one third of the way from the top are wooden orbs suggestive of buoys, flotation devices, or (again) breasts. Although not literally kinetic, the piece has movement: the frothy synthetic fabric seems both to spill out of and be trapped by the girded column. The effect is one of abiding dichotomies—linear and curved, steely and gossamer, “masculine” and “feminine”—that defy resolution.

The show rewards viewing from different angles—close scrutiny of the pieces’ materials and nuances of movement—and a consideration of the pieces in relation to each other. Ultimately, one notices that Butter’s works create provisional scenarios and spaces—scenes one might hope to enter and explore—and moments of rest. They alternately invite and disrupt a sense of ease and stability—pulling the viewer in only to stymy expectations that become apparent by being thwarted. Viewed together, Butter’s sculptures and paintings embody a dialogue about the tensions between stillness and movement, 2-D and 3-D, with each piece contributing a motive energy of its own. The invitation to participate proves difficult to resist—upon leaving the show, this viewer realized that she had served as a willing and engaged foil in an ongoing exploration of disequilibrium.

Tom Butter is based in New York City and a member of the faculty at Parsons the New School for Design. Astir is the inaugural exhibition at the Rafius Fane Gallery in Boston’s SoWa district, on view at 460c Harrison Avenue through December 26th, 2015.



Mara Dale


Mara Dale holds a Ph.D. in English and American Language and Literature from Harvard University. A resident of Somerville, MA, she teaches English literature, film analysis, and multi-disciplinary humanities courses at Commonwealth School in Boston.

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