Thursday, May 21, 2009

There and Back Again, and Again

There’s really no clear beginning or end. Or so explains Annie Butrus, standing within the galleries displaying her series, Peach Tree Trail: New Works from Culp Farm. Here, twenty-eight diptychs, each a total of twenty-eight by fifty inches, explore the four seasons in a single peach farm in rural Alabama.

Butrus’ investigations of Alabama peach orchards, both painterly and culturally, have been a keen area of focus for five years. Now, after beginning a series at a single place, Culp Farm, Butrus recognized that a late spring freeze could dynamically alter both the physical and the economic conditions of the farm, its family, and their crop. She decided to visually pursue the implications of this challenging event further.

Technically, her diptychs reflect an object and its shadows, although the horizons don’t necessarily remain consistent. Instead, the images laid upon the panels, and the depths created through the layering of glazes and resists, stand as metaphors for the passage of time. This is reinforced through the structure of the exhibition, in which each season’s story is told across seven consecutive panels, with the ruptures and slippages that nature always includes.

“I enjoy making works with rules,” Butrus observes, “but through interrupting the linearity of the seasons, by slightly rupturing or restructuring time, I am able to reflect how nature itself is uncontrollable.”

This dichotomy between structure and chaos allows Butrus to segue between panels that are more representational and others that are almost entirely expressionistic. In the middle of the series, for example, four consecutive works read almost entirely as Rorschach blots, while a few panels later an almost entirely white block at the top of a work suggests being blinded by the sun.

It is these breaks that make the works, when viewed together, so rewarding. The pieces are capable of being viewed individually, but their whole may read more complexly than the sum of their parts.

Color is also key to the experience. As Butrus remarks, “The way I’ve been setting up the emotive qualities of the colors gives you clues to how to move through the space.” The exhibition leads viewers from left to right along a linear track that is familiar in a Western tradition. Butrus had always envisioned this construction, believing that its reverse might simply be unnerving. As it is, the seasons themselves are not defined by texts or markers, so understanding that the works begin and end in winter is a subconscious realization.

One of the challenges presented was a space punctured by doors and windows. Butrus used this to create what she terms the exhibition’s rhythm, remarking that towards its end it is punctuated by several staccato bursts. “One of the challenges of presenting the works as a continuous linear experience,” she notes, “is the possibility of sags or weak points.” She compensates for these possibilities by shifting between panels that are more or less representational, as well as being more or less internally mirrored. She refers to this constant shift in mirroring as “strained symmetry”, which is used to create tension within and between the works.

The twenty-eight panels in the Culp Farm series are smaller, more gestural, and more abstract than many of Butrus’ earlier works. She remarks,

these paintings have become more dynamic… I had certain goals with them. I wanted these pieces to be as minimal and as raw as I could possibly get them. I also didn’t want to rely on any additional senses, as I felt that this would allow me to push my visual language further.

This was, in part, a recognition of the control and polish of her earlier works. Both the scale, the format and the installation of these works provided a space for exploration. Her focus became one in which simple oppositions such as positive and negative, or light and dark, became the significant measures for the composition of each work. She also approached the pieces as having a linear progression, a narrative that was constructed to tell the story that had motivated these works originally.

“The late freeze of 2007 was so significant,” Butrus remarks, “that I wanted to address how that specific event had so dramatically affected a single place.” As a result, Butrus chronicled specific trees in a particular orchard over the course of a single year.

What may seem anachronistic in a digital age is the fact that Butrus works en plein air, carrying sketchbooks and tracing paper to the orchards to track the passage of time as the trees cast their shadows across the ground. These are then transferred to her panels, as obverse and reverse images, creating the diptychs that comprise each single work. She is committed to the technical pursuits of painting and believes that it is the fundamentals of painting that, when interpreted or altered, have the greatest potential for innovation.

“I am really intrigued by color theory and I use it to guide the palettes that I use.” This is evident in her warm, rich blacks, and the bursts of pink, yellow, red and green that cover her gessoed panels. The colors push out from the surfaces and overlap from one panel to the next. This creates an almost cinematic sense of movement. One might consider it to be the antithesis of meditations on urbanism like Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi, among others, or Michel de Certeau’s chapter Walking in the City from The Practice of Everyday Life.

In the end, Butrus’ meditations become elliptical, leading the viewer almost back to the point of beginning. But somehow, it is not the same. The simple spatial dislocation of the gallery’s architecture gives the exhibition a defined beginning and end and mirrors the simple fact that, for Culp Farm as well as for everything else, time has passed. A new period begins, with the same name, yet somehow its place and space are completely different. It may be Winter, Spring, Summer or Fall, but it will not be that Winter, that Spring, that Summer or that Fall.

Instead, the Peach Tree Trail will continue, as a series and perhaps even at Culp Farm, but it will never again be a portrait of those trees, in that place at that time. Perhaps this is why we will recall what Butrus said in the beginning when she remarked, “it is like I am making works that have no clear beginning and end.” And yes, there is a beginning, and an end, but yes too, they are not clear indeed.

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