Jim Butler, Debris, 1997, oil on canvas.
Jim Butler’s recent paintings bring to the tradition of “realism” a concern for the act of perception. By working from what appears to be elaborate still lifes of common objects, such as a battered suitcase, a burnt milk crate, or a collapsed inflatable doll, he skillfully turns these banal objects into haunting paintings that obstruct their narrative quality. The complexity of these paintings resides not in the objects nor in their physical condition, but in how Butler has recorded his viewing of them. Through the process of painting, Butler is able to address not the object and its psychology, as much as the way in which it is transformed by the artist’s gaze that objectifies it. We are not asked to decipher “what” these objects mean, but rather “how” they were transposed to an eerie and enigmatic form through the process of viewing. What we are made to behold is how the artist’s vision leads to his psychological identification with the object that he is painting, not in a romantic manner, but with the near scientific exactitude that Merleau Ponty attributes to Cézanne. Butler does not depend solely on his craft to achieve this ontology, nor does he utilize it to merely present us with his virtuosity, but rather employs it to its fullest in order to achieve a synthesis of form and content that is wholly established through vision. Contrary to much didactic work that is presented to us these days, Butler’s paintings compel the viewer to become engaged through the act of seeing, rather than such perception being reduced to what can be said about it.