Revealing transformations

New works by Dan Butler and Judith Klausner
By GREG COOK  |  May 28, 2014

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ACUTELY OBSERVED Butler's 'Hollywood Theatre.'

Seeing Dan Butler’s drawings and prints, you can imagine him talking long rambling strolls around cities and whipping out his sketchbook here and there to jot down impressions of old street lamps and bridges and other brawny urban constructions of America from the Gilded Age to World War II.

In the New York artist’s show “Past Objects” at Craftland (235 Westminster St, Providence, through June 26), he often draws with a fine, elegant pen line that feels quick and casual. He boils down the decoration of an old wrought-iron fire escape in New York’s Chinatown or the ornamentation of beaux-arts architecture to squiggles and curlicues, into the natural calligraphic gestures of an artist’s fingers and wrist. A few years back he turned a drawing of Providence’s City Hall and the Biltmore Hotel into a locally beloved screenprint. His style recalls Saul Steinberg a bit, but especially Jean-Jacques Sempé.

The challenge of this way of drawing is for it to make it feel dashingly casual, but still acutely observed, not half-assed. Butler’s drawings of a Victorian clock and ancient marble column feel too dashed off. He seems to be stretching to add weight to drawings of old machinery by adding pastel to his usual pen, but the results feel mushy.

But when he’s really on — like his pen drawing of
the ornate that is the façade of the Hollywood Theatre — a revealing transformation occurs. The movie house opened in 1926 in Portland, Oregon, with a style described as Spanish colonial revival, though it also seems to have Orientalist fantasies inspiring its soaring, stacked arches and half-naked mermaids. Butler renders an elaborate caricature of the building that takes artistic liberties with how the building looks to channel exactly how the place feels.

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