Deborah Butterfield’s horse sculpture “Burnt Pine” stands seven feet tall, and its spare frame brings to mind reconstructed dinosaur skeletons. “Danuta” is a reclining bronze giant in outline, a tangle of rough bronze.
The two sculptures have joined the Speed Art Museum’s collection and are now on display in “Inside | Out,” a preview of how the museum’s collection will interact with nature when the Speed reopens in 20125 after a $50 million expansion and renovation.
“They’re very much an abstract question,” says Butterfield of her horse sculptures. “It’s rather like having a large rectangular canvas supported by four legs.”
Butterfield will deliver a lecture on her work as part of the Speed’s “Artist Dialogues” series Saturday at 2:30 p.m. in the museum’s auditorium. After, she will join Louisville-based artists Chris Radtke and Gaela Erwin on a panel about artistic process and the relationship between the private and public in art.
Butterfield’s work can be found in the collections of the country’s top museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Her muse has taken equine form since her student days at the University of California-Davis in the early 1970s.
“I wanted to do self-portraiture, work about myself, but wasn’t that interested in using the human form. I didn’t want to do naked ladies,” says Butterfield. “I chose to use an animal as a metaphorical substitute for myself.”
Over the course of her career and her life – Butterfield lives with ten horses and four mules in Bozeman, Montana, and is an avid dressage competitor – her perspective has changed from self-portraits to the horses themselves. Now, her sculptures are focused on the meditative aspects of working with horses.
“They’re so connected with their own bodies,” says Bozeman. “Working with a horse, there is a lot of abstract thought between us, since we don’t share a common language. So our language with them becomes gestural and physical, more like dancing.”
“One of the things about being with a horse is you have to interpret and care for and deal with that silence, so you have to stop talking and listen,” she added.
Butterfield’s large bronze sculptures are not typical equine renderings. There are no rippling muscles or soulful eyes in “Burnt Pine” or in “Danuta,” which Butterfield says more closely references the reclining nude than a realistic animal.
“So many times with the contemporary art world, I find myself saying, these aren’t horses,” says Butterfield. “They are abstract sculptures that ultimately become personified when you add a neck and a head.”
So she’s thrilled to exhibit her work in Kentucky, where she hopes to find an overlap between the art audience and fellow horse lovers. On Saturday, she will diverge a bit from her usual artist talk, bringing with her photos of her own horses (“Danuta” is modeled on her own mare of the same name) and her portraits of them.
“With all art, you want to express something that’s very private and personal about yourself, but make it interesting enough and profound enough that it will have meaning to other people as well,” says Butterfield. “The best work is the work that’s not completed until the viewer sees it.”