At the opening for sculptor Deborah Butterfield’s current show at L.A. Louver gallery, which runs through May 9, visitor after visitor walked up to the monumental bronze horses, leaned forward for a closer look, and then, still curious, reached out to touch or tap them. Arguments over the works’ material makeup ensued, until the skeptics were gently set straight by one of the gallery’s directors, or other viewers in the know.
The issue was the striking resemblance Butterfield’s cast-bronze horses have to their original incarnations—various wood sticks joined together to create a stunning, oversize figure. After she has completed a horse in sticks, Butterfield records and disassembles each delicate piece, then casts them in plaster, and pours molten bronze into the mold. Once each piece is cooled and hardened, she adds the patina to make it look just like the original wood she began with, only the result is a sculpture that will last forever, or very near it. The process is a grueling one: Butterfield relies on a team of fabricators at the Walla Walla Foundry in Washington to help execute each form, which takes 20 different people around three months to finish.
In addition to her cast-bronze models are steel sculptures made from scrap metal—some twisted, rusted, and on a small scale; some colorful and semi-reflective of what they once were. Inspiration comes from her horses, which she tends each day at her ranch in Bozeman, Montana, or at her studio on the Big Island of Hawaii. “It’s not a light thing, taking care of them,” she says. “I wrap their legs, give them shots—it’s a daily devotion, kind of like being a servant. But they are part of me, and what I do.”
The gallery produced a limited-edition book to accompany the exhibition, its small scale a direct antithesis to Butterfield’s monolithic pieces. Inside, her body of work (shot mostly by Robert Wedemeyer and artfully cropped by the editors) and snapshots of her artistic process are accompanied by a Q & A with the artist. “Since they offered to make a book to go with the show, I had to finish the work four months before it started,” notes Butterfield. “I was tearing my hair out way ahead of time—I work by postponing, putting off, avoiding. But since I was done, I actually wasn’t catatonic at the opening.” —Erika Heet