Unseen forces

Ben Butler’s spiritual science at Coleman Burke Gallery
By IAN PAIGE  |  August 8, 2007
INSIDEart_benbutler
WOODEN STONEHENGE "All things long to persist in their being," by Ben Butler.

"Castle" | Wood sculptures by Ben Butler | At Coleman Burke Gallery, Fort Andross, 14 Maine St, Brunswick | Through September 8
The sheer size of the Coleman Burke Gallery, located in Brunswick’s Fort Andross building, proves to be a playground for the ambitious scope of Ben Butler’s warm, minimalist sculptures. The Chicago-based artist and Bowdoin College graduate exhibits three pieces exemplifying repetitive natural geometries and composed of natural, bare wood that resonates with the hardwood floors of the gallery. The sculpture that comprises the “Castle” exhibit explores the rare opportunity to work indoors on a large scale with plenty of elbow room left over so the viewer can fully explore every angle.

At first, the show feels perhaps too spacious. Butler’s work sits so naturally in the room, the viewer may be tempted to respond with a defensive, “Is that it?”, a question that continues to baffle the uninitiated or unconvinced on the cubes and stripes of 1970s minimalism.

Butler, however, has a bright-eyed fascination with mathematical systems and a humble construction aesthetic worthy of the Shakers. What could be industrial metal is warm wood. What could be a monolith is a system-made-visible, transparent enough to invite the viewer to explore every angle. The sculpture feels comforting because it is derived from the same unseen mathematical relationships informing our natural world, yet the work also pushes us to contemplate those systems towards a sometimes uncomfortable and confounding esoteric territory.

“Nest” is a web of glued poplar pieces fashioned into self-supporting arches. Ten or so layers of the same structure rest tentatively atop one another like Russian dolls. Depending on which angle you look from, the piece is reminiscent of an upturned hull of a boat, or an elaborate arched tunnel. Everywhere your eye meets the work, a passage or tunnel opens up and barrels toward an infinity suggested by these separate, skeletal structures. Your eyes do the work filling in the gaps of these simple relationships to create a sense of movement through abstracted space.

Up-close scrutiny of “Chamber” is not as successful an experience as that of “Nest.” Simply crafted pine quadrilaterals are shaped and stacked on a bed of similarly constructed triangles pointing up like stalagmites. One piece set atop another like children’s blocks creates a rough-hewn arch, each side forming a supportive grid. The open shapes are momentarily enjoyable to look through but the visual play is confused by the casual manner in which each block is freely balanced. They don’t form a smooth surface and you don’t know quite what to take from the structure.

Ten paces backwards, however, and at just the right angle, a little optical magic helps the piece pay off. The positive and negative spaces crystallize to form a tight geometric arch, budding like a clover flower. Suddenly, the piece has moved from confusing craft to an almost glowing auric example of a growth pattern.

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