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2 October 2009, 5:30 pm No Comments

San Francisco: Luke Butler: Captain!

Event Details: Luke Butler: Captain! - :

Jason Hanasik is a San Francisco-based artist and will be contributing reviews of art installations around the city. Hanasik has an MFA from the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, CA, and a BFA Summa Cum Laude from the State University of New York at Purchase. Hanasik is currently an instructor at the ASUC Art Studio at the University of California at Berkeley. His work has been exhibited widely and published in various journals and publications. This spring a portfolio of his project, “He Opened Up Somewhere Along the Eastern Shore,” will be published in the Society for Photographic Education’s journal, Exposure, with a thoughtful essay by the artist, critic and curator, Tammy Rae Carland. For this piece, Hanasik reviewed Luke Butler’s Captain! showing now at the Silverman Gallery.

Bridge, 32x38 inches, Acrylic on Canvas, 2009

Bridge, 32x38 inches, Acrylic on Canvas, 2009

“Please report to the bridge.”

There is something awry in the world of men at Luke Butler’s first solo exhibition at Silverman Gallery in San Francisco. This installation presents a dozen or so new paintings and collages from his Enterprise and Leaders of Men series, continuing Butler’s ongoing investigation and ultimate undermining of male power symbols of the 1960s and 70s.

I have watched these projects develop from a few pieces in his MFA thesis exhibition through its installation at Second Floor Projects and finally now at Silverman Gallery. Each time I see a new work in either series, I am amazed not only by the technical leaps he has made as a painter and collage artist but also by the extension of the concepts he continues to mine.

For a long time in the Enterprise series, Butler would simply key the background out of the original scene. The viewer was left looking at one of the iconic (almost always male) characters from Star Trek writhing about on an open plane of grey. I say simply, not in a pejorative sense, but as a means to illustrate what the viewer was presented with when looking at the painting. Each time I saw a new work, I would shuttle through the few episodes I remember having seen as a kid and try to recall not specific scenes, but if, in fact, Captain Kirk or his fellow mates had really ever been in such wonderfully vulnerable positions. Be it story structure, narrative flow, or just good old bad memory, I can never seem to remember these types of moments. (Ultimately, who cares whether they actually happened in the series or not, though I imagine they did.) Nonetheless, Butler explores what image-making does best: he imagines a world that should exist while questioning the one that currently does. Instead of conquering new worlds, these men are in flux trying to figure out their own bodies, emotions, and existing worlds. Even the title is telling: Enterprise. Instead of the stern, well-mannered, private CEOs that one generally sees in charge, Butler presents an intimate view of these men. Maybe they will grow into that stoic, impenetrable image of masculinity, but in Captain!, these men are figuring out how to lead as they go and Butler is there, paintbrush in hand, showing us all the messy mistakes and awkward positions they find themselves in.

His second series, shown interspersed with the Enterprise paintings, is called Leaders of Men. In this project, Butler decapitates nude male figures pulled from the pages of publications like Playgirl and replaces their heads with Presidents Ford and Nixon. Cleverly choosing the men who were leading the United States around the time of the Star Trek miniseries, Butler moves away from the film still and into the fantastically confusing space of desire. These collages are not as “perfect” as anything done in Photoshop; however, Butler’s attention to light, shadow, color, and even the tone of the source paper from which the presidential image is culled makes them appear almost seamless. So much so, that the first time I saw them, I thought Butler was (re)presenting a private image he surreptitiously gathered from a president’s personal archive.

At first, the only thing I could think of with these works is how much I wanted to put one of these pieces in my bathroom. As trite as that sounds, these collages are absolutely beautiful to behold, especially Leader of Men 38: Wolverine. The more I thought about why I liked these collages and wanted to live with one permanently, the more I realized that they make me very uncomfortable. I had always viewed these images in a deserted gallery, or would wait to look at them after others had left the room. They felt wrong in all the right ways.

Moving away from the desire they surprisingly incite, the works included in the Leaders of Men series also do other, equally engaging work. Like the Enterprise paintings, Butler shifts the attention away from what the source imagery is supposed to be doing — represent power, bestow a sense of calmness in the face of adversity, etc. — and reminds us of a leader’s humanity and his sexuality. Ultimately, it appears that Butler is undermining what Richard Brilliant says every leader has already figured out: “[a] coincidence of self-awareness and self-making through a lifetime of appearances on the public stage*.” If only we didn’t hold these men — and by proxy all persons — to such a high standard of impregnability, we wouldn’t have to see them nude to realize how covered up they really are. At least, in Luke Butler’s world, we are all given a glimpse of that possibility and what a wonderful possibility that world seems to be.

* Footnote: Brilliant, Richard. Portraiture. London: Reaktion Books Limited, 1991. Print. 58-59


Luke Butler’s Captain! is on view until October 17 at Silverman Gallery on 804 Sutter Street between Jones and Leavenworth. For more information, please contact Silverman Gallery at (415) 255-9508.

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