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March 2014

Susan Silas

Susan SilasSusan Silas’s parents, both Hungarian Jews, immigrated to the United States in 1949 after surviving World War II — her father in slave labor camps and her mother in a Budapest ghetto. As a child, she learned about their experiences by eavesdropping on their evening gatherings with fellow survivors when she was supposed to be asleep.

Her artworks, invariably imprinted by the Shoah, are at once acts of remembrance and confrontations with nothingness. Her most ambitious project, Helmbrechts walk (1998–2003), retraces the route taken by 580 female Jewish prisoners on a forced march from the Helmbrechts concentration camp in Germany to Czechoslovakia in the closing weeks of the war. Silas began her commemorative walk, which took 22 days, on April 13, 1998, the 53rd anniversary of the march, documenting the journey in video, photography, and writing.

For her ongoing series, found birds, which she began in 2000, the artist picks up dead birds that she comes across in city streets or parks and carries them to her studio, where she photographs them against a white backdrop, Avedon-style, in progressive states of decay. The images are astonishingly beautiful in their precision of detail and modulation of color; they are also piteous and often repulsive, aiming squarely at the deadness of the thing.

By employing photographic techniques usually reserved for fashion models or luxury goods, Silas, who is also a regular contributor to Hyperallergic’s daily edition, achieves an unsettling dichotomy between allure and aversion. The rich colors and clean lines seduce us into gazing upon the image of a once-living thing, an embrace that feels both privileged — coming, as it does, within a slice of time extending beyond the life of the bird — and indecent.

Still, Silas seems less intent on disconcerting the viewer than on using the incitement of beauty to drive home a sense of oblivion: that the birds, no matter how gorgeously plumed, are “dead as earth,” as Lear said of Cordelia.

The formal elegance and merciless eye of the found birds series carry over into love in the ruins; sex over 50.

The images of love in the ruins, another ongoing project (since 2003) described on Silas’s website as “a personal diary of sex and sensuality […] about the resilience and the decay of the aging body,” are illuminated with the same ambient light found in the bird photos and the self-portraits. The subject is Silas and her husband, a powerful-looking, barrel-chested man, in the act of making love.

Shot against white walls and white sheets with pale gray stripes, the photographs convey a contained sense of action, with the limbs and torsos forming tight geometric, and at times symmetric, shapes. The classicizing impulse of the composition is countered by the rough details of the lovers’ mature bodies: graceless patches of hair, sagging stretches of skin, constellations of burst varicose veins.

Like the artworks of John Coplans (1920–2003), who started photographing his own naked body when he turned 60, Silas’s combinations of structural rigor and unflattering reality accentuate the humanity underlying historical formulations of the ideal. At the same time, they subvert the notion of the ideal by infusing it with unvarnished intimations of mortality.

Kathy Butterly

Butterly-Scout-2013-clay-glaze-3-7_8-x-5-¾-x-3-7_8-inchesJohn Yau of Hyperallergic says, "Kathy Butterly is an American original whose closest forbearer is George Ohr (1857–1918), ‘The Mad Potter of Biloxi.’ The formal traits she shares with Ohr include a penchant for crumpled shapes, twisted and pinched openings, and making (as Ohr was understandably proud to point out) ‘no two alike.’ Working within the confines of the fired clay vessel, Butterly has transformed this long established, historical convention into something altogether fresh and new, melding innovation to imagination so precisely that it is impossible to separate them. To this earlier observation, I would now add: For this and many other reasons, Butterly is deserving of an in-depth museum survey."

Consider the intersection at which Butterly has chosen to work, and you get a sense of her ambition and genius. While maintaining a modest scale, she continually reinvents the fired clay vessel (cup or vase) in ways that exceed anything anyone else has done in the medium. From the unique base to the distinct body (creased, collapsing, convoluted and twisted), to the diverse surface, which can run from smooth to craqueled, often in the same piece, to the saturated color (sunshine yellow, fleshy pink, Veronese green and fire engine red), to minute details (yellow lozenges the size of an elf’s pat of butter), everything (including the spills and stains) in a Butterly sculpture attains its own particular identity.

Butterly’s commemorations of misshapenness contradict a basic assumption in ceramics and, by extension, art, which is it is possible to make a perfect or ideal form, achieve a timeless beauty. The postmodern converse of this ideal, that one can make a perfect corpse (or copy), is well known. Butterly doesn’t buy into these models, with their roots in Plato (the ideal) and Aristotle (classification). Rather, she seems to believe that change is central to experience. In shaping her vessels, she folds, bends and twists the clay, recognizing that anxiety, worry and vulnerability are inherent to existence. Unable to escape time and the constant, multiple pressures it applies, she transforms those forces into contours and forms that are simultaneously goofy and shy, fantastic and disenchanted, gaudy and thwarted, sexy and monstrous.