What is my work about?
I make hybrid objects that are part unfinished material assemblage and part quasi-representational artifact. I attempt to build sculptures without clearly defined interiors, where the results are a continuous folding of interpenetrating motifs. They are a negotiation between optical surface and material volume. Shifting ideas compete for the same physical space. That space, where there is an exchange of energy and transformation of matter, becomes the work. It is essential that the sculptures I make be about the phenomena of sculpture, that there is no better way of putting into the world the ideas that go into them.
I am interested in making hybrid constructions that are both unfinished material assemblage and quasi-representational artifact. Shapes are built up from an amalgam of separate impulses and reconciled to one sculpture-poem. They are repeated attempts to create objects that have been captured mid-process as they come into formation. They suggest movement, yet are built in incremental steps, an abstract expressionism wary of the romanticized hand and the signifying drip. These implied motions are a nod to art making as a performative act. During this performance I work on many idea fragments at once which disrupts my ability to anticipate outcomes and uncouples labor-value from an idea’s poetic potential. A construction becomes a found object, a dislocated phantom limb haunting the studio.
Sculpture is paradoxical in that compared to an illusionistic image – painted, photographic, or otherwise – it operates as an actuality. It is actually in the room with the viewer. It is actually made of a material that can support itself with gravity acting upon it. And yet, without touching or lifting a sculpture to understand its material and mass, sculpture is experienced as a surface. Bronze castings are hollow shells meant to look solid. Stone carvings are often assembled from numerous blocks intended to be read as a continuous whole. This relationship between perceived surface and imagined interior is fundamental to sculpture. The ‘Gear Box’ sculptures, images 7-12, came from this idea of an interior space hidden from view by an exterior shell. By emulating the axles and housing of a gearbox, the sculptures are meant to imply functionality – specifically, the spinning motion of a lathe or potter’s wheel – while overtly displaying their uselessness.
What’s more, sculpture requires a mobile viewer to move through space to perceive the work from many vantages. Its changing appearance through viewer activation sets sculpture apart from other media. ‘Film (Shagai)’, shown in images 1-2, is a kinetic work that addresses this phenomenon. It reverses the typical relationship between sculpture and viewer by rotating the object on the multiple axes of a gimbal, thereby presenting all sides of the object to a stationary viewer. In this it resembles the experience of watching a film, where changing images are presented to a forward-facing audience. The title is also in reference to the surface of the object being shown to the viewer by the rotating mechanism. It depicts an enlarged shagai, or anklebone, once used as a readymade playing die before cubic six-sided dice were produced, an organic analog to the minimalist cube.
I have limited the scope of my practice to the making of discrete objects. With that, I embrace the institutional apparatus that allows for sculpture to be somewhat autonomous, such as the white-walled gallery and even the once-maligned pedestal. These structures allow for arrangements and new ideas to enter into the world within an understood space before a select audience. With that in mind, images 5-6, ‘Lamppost’ and ‘Crates’, were part of a sculpture show and performance series centered on the gentrification of food as evidenced by the up-scaling of the New York corner store. I produced sculptures, display fixtures, and audience risers for the exhibition. What was most salient about the project were the fluid boundaries between what was and was not a ‘work’. An object may have begun as a display fixture for other objects, then developed into its own free-standing idea. At other times work became more collaborative and the divisions between works less clear. I was confronted with the question of whether something was an autonomous sculpture, a theatrical prop, or a product for sale within the deli-mimicking installation. This fluidity spoke to the precarious role of sculpture today in that it is perched between a debunked modernist absolute, and a splintering post-modern relativity.
In the assemblies shown in images 13-18, the desire to make complex surfaces was the driving force behind the work. I took the idea of sculpture as a unified skin, and wanted to give that skin its own three-dimensionality – a sub-surface scattering laid bare that scumbled the division between inside and out. What interests me in this non-linear and pluralistic approach to making sculpture is the possibility of discovering new shapes and new combinations of shapes through which to unlock unexpected meanings.
‘Carved Candles’, images 19-20, are inspired by the craft objects of the same name – decorative candles carved from a buildup of different colored waxes, cut and twisted into shape. The sculptures were 3D printed in nylon from hand-built virtual 3D models. They replicate the surface of the original objects but are printed as hollow shells, layer by layer. The unique processes that formed the wax candles have been replaced by an infinitely mutable technology thereby foregrounding topology over substance as the primary signifier.
It is essential that the sculptures I make be about the phenomena of sculpture, that there is no better way of putting into the world the ideas and the effort that go into them. The works must demand their physicality. ‘Inner Ear’, images 3-4, can only truly be experienced in person. Its scale and the way in which it occupies the same space as the viewer are lost in photo documentation. The parabolic dish and its acoustic effects are untranslatable.
2004 – 2006
University of Southern California, MFA
Maryland Institute, College of Art, BFA, Sculpture
AICAD New York Studio Program
Exposition à l’Abbaye de Léhon, Léhon, France
Sing’s Millennium Mart, Interstate Projects, Brooklyn, NY
Cemetereum, Regina Rex/Harbor, Emerson Dorsch, Miami, FL
Maspeth World of Wheels,Knockdown Center, Maspeth, NY
Remnants, Werkhaus, Brooklyn, NY
Jonathan Butt | Cal Crawford | Jeni Spota, Brennan & Griffin, New York, NY
7 Sculptors, Brennan & Griffin, New York, NY
Cowboy Mouth, St. Cecilia’s Convent, Brooklyn, NY
Deep/ Shallow, Gowanus Studio Space, Brooklyn, NY
L.o.S.T. – Library of Sacred Technologies, Los Angeles, CA
Jonathan Butt & Mernet Larsen, Regina Rex, Ridgewood, NY
Suddenly It’s 2007, Roski Gallery, Los Angeles, CA
Sculpting, Raid Projects, Los Angeles, CA
MFA Exhibition, Roski Gallery, Los Angeles, CA
LA Weekly 2nd Annual Biennial, Track 16, Los Angeles, CA
Chain Letter, High Energy Constructs, Los Angeles, CA
Supersonic, Los Angeles, Barnsdall Art Park, Los Angeles CA
Help Yourself, MFA Thesis Exhibition, Roski Gallery, Los Angeles, CA
Christmas in July, Black Dragon Society, Los Angeles, CA
Group Grope, Roski Gallery, Los Angeles, CA
Survivor Series, F2, Los Angeles, CA
Ready, Set, Go!, F Space, Los Angeles, CA
Smoke and Mirrors, Fredrik Snitzer, Miami FL
Editions, Brooklyn Front, Brooklyn, NY
Kathleen Neely Macomber Prize, Los Angeles, CA
Alfred & Trafford Klots International Program for Artists, Léhon, France
Vermont Studio Center, Johnson, VT
The L Magazine – Inside the Artist’s Studio: Jonathan Butt in Bushwick
L.o.S.T – Library of Sacred Technologies: Low Relief
Maryland Institute, College of Art- Sculpture Dept., 3D modeling, Baltimore, MD
2013 – present
Parsons The New School for Design, Photography Department, New York, NY