Semiotics aside, Paul Butler’s reproduced collages shown at Division Gallery for Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival exist simply for our aesthetic pleasure and are documentary evidence of his organized ‘social sculpture’. Semiotics is the study of meaning making, examining signs and symbols beyond their direct signification towards individual communicative behaviors and systems in language, gestures or clothing. Just as words have a level of suggestibility in the context of their pronouncement, so too can images in their context and composure be read as devices of communication – and collage a personal language.
The source material in Butler’s reproduced C-print collages look as though they come from a 1990s National Geographic. The colours not only indicate the age of the magazine’s paper, but also the quality of cameras and image reproduction in the bygone age of paper publications from which so much detritus remains, it is available at every Salvation Army for a pittance. If not, then the serene, leafy landscapes Butler has used also remind us for the time with classroom posters boasting of wisdom or nature’s soulful inspiration. An artistic practice of collage, of rearranging images, producing new symbols reveals personal language developed from habit and aesthetic preferences. However, the works at Division Gallery exist outside of Butler’s semiotic code. Indicated by the exhibition title, Semiotics Aside, the works do not reflect his regular processes.
The selected collages, though all forested landscapes, display little consistency in technique or style. Three works titled “flowers 021, 022 and 023” include flowers in vases pasted onto landscapes, vaguely reminiscent of a shoe-gazy rock band album cover.
In “landscape 001,” small blue and purple blobs punctuate a forest of fall leaves seemingly at random, while in “landscape 033” blobs are cut out strategically to imply mounds of snow on branches. In “landscape 016 and 010,” one image is torn in half and placed over top of two other landscapes. “Landscape 020” includes a small square of swelling water, a seascape, placed in the middle of a field image to match the horizon line – a style not unlike the one developed by artist John Stezaker. Collage techniques aside “landscape 009” is a thrilling display of natural colours, and so full of trees that it hardly seems two-dimensional.
The way in which Butler accomplishes escape from personal semiotics is by partying. For over ten years, Butler has been organizing Collage Parties in which artist and amateur collagers alike get together to cut and paste old publications. The materials provided are diverse, including: National Geographic, a stack of teen beauty magazines titled Sassy, a Taylor Swift biography, a Donald Trump board game and various music magazines. From these events – set up in public art spaces where in Relational Aesthetics tradition, they become a social artwork – Butler gathers scraps and admires techniques. His goal then, is to rid of symbolism and assembly aesthetically pleasing compositions. The space in Division Gallery assigned as Collage Party feels more like an afterschool recreation room including sofa, TV, radio, craft area and table tennis, a space for playful congregation. The multidisciplinary practice of Butler, a Winnipeg based artist, includes internationally pushing the boundaries and definitions of art world models. The travelling studio/party forms a much needed community space beyond post graduate artists and art professionals, where tactile art production is promoted as a healthy and entertaining activity.
Text and photo: Alice Pelot
*Exhibition information: May 5 – June 4, 2016, Divison Gallery, 45 Ernest Avenue, Toronto. Gallery hours: Tue – Sat, 10 am – 6 pm.