‘Unlike you we’ve found ourselves a home, up in the starry ether, bright and cold. Oblivious to the passing hours and days, we’re neither male nor female, young nor old… Our life is eternal, cool and unchanging; cool and star-bright, our laughter knows no end…’ Hermann Hesse
Dressed in denim overalls, a pale cream, floral shirt, ankle high boots and a stetson hat, Butch Anthony assembles himself like a man who knew the rituals of habit all too well. Although, in real life he dresses like a American railwayman, stuck in a timeless tradition, in the recent exhibition ‘Intertwangleism’ his portraits revealed, an inner desire to explore time and change.
Represented by Black Rat Project, Butch’s dismantled selves are offered new roles to play, as he alters their relationships with an inscription of satirical words or sentences; it’s what makes the portraits come alive. Melancholy turns to shameless hysteria. These portraits, possessing the power to be subversive and perverse, are not to be taken seriously.
At the private view of ‘Intertwangleism’ Butch asked me, “Where did all these people come from?” in a charming and gentle Alabama drawl. “What are they all doing here? I sure as hell don’t want to talk to any of them.” He isn’t rude, just anxious as “people scare him”. These manipulated and re-worked historical images appear to almost stage an act of ‘ventriloquism’, as the artist projects his voice onto the painting. It’s as if his ideas are manipulated, coming from somewhere else, as the silent thoughts of the artist are projected onto the re-animated, puppet like portraits. The superimposed text destroys the silent restraint and rigidity of the original Victorian portraits, to reveal and perhaps expose the repressed internal dialogues of the staid formal poses.
In this way he playfully vandalises the Victorian aesthetic, the once stiff portraits begin to engage in a process of psychological metamorphosis. The fear of things left unsaid and the subconscious are revealed as he messes with, and ridicules 19th Century taboos. Stern, ‘dignified’, conservatively dressed women are collaged with ‘sexual’ and or pornographic imagery. The female breasts prime function of secreting milk after childbirth is concealed and denied, as the firm, pert, sexualised breasts become isolated objects of desire. Contemporary body-parts are torn, displaced and implanted onto another strange body – the other. In this way the ‘dead’ women on display are ironically turned into strangely perverse sexual objects.
In these intriguing works this rather eccentric independently minded, maverick American, within his world of folklore and culture, created in his own American hinterland, engages in a personal re-writing of history. As he does so he unravels social myths and conventions of the bourgeois. Butch ‘intertwangleises’ these once mute portraits to create a dialogue in the space between two binary, opposing centuries of thought. When I asked Butch, “How did the reactions of those in London differ from people in Alabama towards your Art?” He replied, “My art scares the general population in Alabama. People in London are more hip and get it.” In this way his work is another example of art being appreciated outside it’s own culture, before, or instead of, finding an acceptance in the place of its making, as many Jazz musicians and Hendrix discovered before him. He challenges boundaries of establishment and order.
The power struggles of life and death are played out on the nameless bodies. The ‘fertility’ of these portraits is created by practically hand painting x-ray, skeletal structures on top of the original flesh toned portraits. Having discovered a dinosaur bone when he was fourteen the artist formed a strong relationship with animal anatomy and anthropology. This developed into a fascination with the internal and invisible structures of things.
The human, a living organism alongside all other animal species, is characterised by birth, life and death. But unlike animals, we possess consciousness. Our capacity for memory and our conscious awareness of time, allows us to situate ourselves in history, as all of us become a constantly evolving historical event, influenced and controlled by memory, the past, the present, imagination, and our own self-perception. Our struggle to accept mortality is expressed through our desire to conceive of ideas of immortality, the acceptance existentially of eternal nothingness being too much to bear. In relation to this Butch demystifies the body and symbols of death. The skeletal forms act as a temporal medium to evoke ideas of mortality and life, and conversely support the internal structures of the living human form.
The process of portrait photography renders the life of the sitter static and annihilated, serving these people who once lived in a time of silence and censorship as victims of a kind of rigor mortis. Unlike the linear narrative of life (and stories) that has a beginning, middle and end, his work provocatively reanimates the dead.
Butch’s work has received critical praise and gained exposure in two of the major Art centres of the world, New York and London, and his work connects to the current trend of re-appropriating and reworking found imagery. In this way it relates to Glen Brown’s masterful re-workings of old and new master paintings, and especially The Chapman Brothers‘ defacing of original Goya prints. His work also connects tangentially, to the title of Damian Hirst’s arguably most famous work, ‘The impossibility of death in the mind of something living’ (A work whose title is almost as important as the work itself).
His, both serious and playful concerns with history re-appropriation, defacement, humour and death, places his work in the centre of contemporary art and culture’s considerations of what it means to exist in a liberal, ‘human, all too human’ (Neitzsche) world.
In conversation with Butch Anthony:
Holly: What does the word ‘Intertwangleism’ mean?
Butch: Inter = mix, Twang = a distinct way of speaking, Ism = a theory
Can you describe the first ‘Intertwanglesim’ piece you ever made?
Drew bones on my high school girlfriend’s yearbook photo when she told me I didn’t know how to kiss!
When did you first start making Art?
Mr. John Henry Toney plowed up a turnip root in my garden that had the face of a man in it. He drew a picture of it and I stuck it in an old antique-junk store and as a joke put a price tag of 50 dollars on it. The next day someone bought it! And our art career was born.
How did you and Mr. John Henry meet?
I’ve known him my whole life. He used to drive his tractor all over town. It was his only transportation.
How do you source your images and found objects?
Boot sales, junk stores and friends are on the look out for me.
Using secondary sources and found objects do you see your art as solely your own work?
Yes I do but other artists get mad at me for painting over their artworks.
Do you think of yourself as an artist or a craftsman?
Both. Universal man, that’s me!
Do you see your art as an extension of yourself?
Everyone in the USA is fat, and I’m so skinny, I weigh the same as I did when I was 18, so I guess my skeleton style suits me.
Can you describe the place where you spend most time making your art?
In my Museum of Wonder, which is an old barn that I use as my studio.
What normally inspires you to create a new piece?
Depends on the old painting or photo I find.
Has being a Zoologist influenced your art practice or are the two quite separate?
Yes, I found a dinosaur bone when I was fourteen and everybody came around to see it, so I guess it all started with that, plus I love anatomy.
What’s your relationship to nature?
I’m most relaxed with nature. People pretty much scare me, especially girls.
What do think of about death?
Life = Death
Why do you use skeletons in your work, is there any symbolism behind them?
It’s a way of looking inside of things, like x-ray vision, a structure/support on which to hang things on.
What happens at a Doo Nanny, the annual alt/folk art “micro” festival?
Oh you kinda just have to be there. Hundreds of alternative type folks just hanging out, camping out, cooking , music and art all mixed up in the middle of the woods.
Can you explain why you made a hundred-foot vagina to burn?
Well, John Henry Toney named it the doo-nanny. After about 5 years of having a little art show on the side of the road he asked, “when ya’ll having another one of those doo-nannies?” I thought that was a cool name, so we named the festival the doo-nanny not knowing what a doo-nanny was. Then he told us what it actually was, you know, a woman thing! So we said, “Hell if this is a you know what festival, we might as well build a you know what.” So, we did.
What comment do you intend on making when combining Victorian portraits of women and pornography?
Well, I do like boobies, so why not make what you like?
Was there anyone in particular who influenced your art?
Are there any key texts, writers, or thinkers that inspire your writing?
What are your views on American Politics?
What do you think about power?
Solar-Power is the way to go!!!
You use traditional Victorian portraits, what relationship do you have with them?
All my ancestors looked goofy, so I swapped their photos out for these cool looking portraits, instant ancestors!
What was it like having your work exhibited in London?
Loved it, loved it, loved it! Very sweet and generous lot of folks working in the gallery.
How did the reactions of those in London differ from people in Alabama towards you’re Art?
My art scares the general population in Alabama. People in London are more hip and get it.
Any new ideas you’re working on for future projects?
I have a million new ideas, will unveil a few new ones at Doo-Nanny.
Do you have a philosophy for life or a phrase you would like to leave us with Butch?
Don’t Bullshit a Bullshitter!