For most of us, chaos seems like a dark thing to fend off, a natural state always threatening to encroach on whatever version of order we’ve created in our own lives.
But Kyle Butler, a painter and sculptor of inordinate gifts whose work is on view through Friday in an exhibition running at Nina Freudenheim Gallery in the Hotel Lenox, seems to welcome chaos with open arms. His latest body of work – three separate series exploring the ideas of order and chaos from slightly different angles – is the product of a deeply probing mind and an uncommonly deft hand.
The show, called “Dead in the Eye, Strait in the Face, Square in the Jaw,” deals on an intellectual level with the constant battle between order and chaos, one perpetually emerging from and overtaking the other. In Butler’s world, order and chaos are never separable but intertwined like two strains of the same virus, engaged in a constant process of damage and healing.
On a purely visual level, Butler’s paintings and drawings in this show are simply gorgeous. His most arresting work here consists of what appears to be black paint dripping down stained wood panels in pleasing, symmetrical abstract patterns. On closer inspection, though, these paintings reveal themselves to be the product not of some Jackson Pollock-esque series of freehand gestures, but of a meticulous process of taping, tracing and painting that only pretends to be random.
These panels, then, are order masquerading as chaos: clever visual tricks meant to prompt the viewer to think about the true sources – the secret strains of organization – of the material that surrounds them. Most of them, save one stunning piece called “you got it all wrong,” begin as a drip painting on wax paper, which was then peeled off and used as a template for the final painting, created via a painstaking process involving lots of tape and even more patience. The alluring result, like muddy black tire tracks traversing some wood-grained landscape, gives little hints about the process by which it was created. That, to my eye, makes its immediately evident beauty even more profound.
Butler’s drawings in this show are something else again. There are two graphite drawings of aerial cityscapes that appear to be strategically erased to reveal organic forms, sometimes craggy, sometimes vaguely cartographic. These are elegant visual statements that could be read in a variety of ways, though I prefer to see them as oblique statements about the way social disorder and social order are uncomfortable inhabitants of the same space engaged in an invisible civil war.
Most fascinating of all, perhaps, are Butler’s modifications of his earlier paintings of stacked boxes on wood panels – meant to be statements on the connection between architecture and social control. In this body of work, Butler questions the very structure he once created by radically modifying his own work. For an artist early in his career, this is a bold and promising move, an acknowledgement that he himself has been an unwitting agent of the very thing he has dedicated his life to critiquing.
Structure, or order, is tricky, Butler seems to be saying. It has a way of reconstituting itself in even the most resistant quarters, arising quietly and unbidden and usually too quickly to do anything about.
But if you’re Butler, and in thrall to the impossible idea of true chaos, you can try to go back and impose it – an act as beautiful as it is doomed to fail.