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Installation view

Staring at Kathy Butterly’s ceramic sculptures, I am overwhelmed by an urge to reach out and touch them. The marriage of color and form is perfectly wrought, shapes and colors inextricable yet sharply distinct. I want to trace my finger along that delicate whisper thin band of orange in Between Things, and feel the little bumps along the rim of Luminious Flow. I want to feel the change between matte and gloss surfaces and the weight of the sculpture in my hand. 

Butterfly starts from a classical, deceptively simple premise: a formal vase sitting on a base. She has coupled this form with concepts of modernist painting; in the ways she uses color and composition in the glazing process.  Starting with a very simple slip cast ceramic form, Butterly alters each one, boldly folding it in onto itself and poking through the skin of the clay. The forms are augmented with delicate ropes of porcelain or carefully carved beads, both of which remind me of sewing notions- ribbons, piping, and trim. They drape elegantly around, over and through the forms, adding a lyrical note to each sculpture. Though diminutive in size (6-12 inches tall), these sculptures pack a wallop.

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Luminous Flow, 2021, Porcelain, earthenware, glaze, 6 3/8 x 7 1/8 x 6 1/4 in.

And then there is the color. Much has been said about Butterly’s masterful use of color and in particular that she uses glaze to create surfaces more commonly associated with painting and drawing.  It is important to note that glaze, a form of colored glass, literally moves on the surface of an object while it’s undergoing the firing and cooling process. There is always a degree of unpredictability in the medium and as glorious as the results can be, there is always the possibility of heartbreak, as colors may drip or melt in an undesired way. Butterly, as both a master of the medium and as a flexible artist, works with the uncertainties and surprises of the firing process. She fires her sculptures up to 40 times in the kiln and is thus able to layer color and texture in completely new ways. I would bet  that she also works with the occasionally errant firing result and uses it moving forward in the sculptures. The pools of glass and swirls of color are adeptly offset by precise painted lines and carefully crafted ornamental elements. Between the hard gloss of the glaze and the softness of the clay forms, the sculptures feel simultaneously hard and soft.

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Subtle Slide, 2021, Porcelain, earthenware, glaze, 7 7/8 x 6 x 5 1/2 in.
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Between Things, 2022, Porcelain, earthenware, and glaze, 8 3/8 x 4 3/4 x 9 1/8 in.
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This, 2022, Porcelain, earthenware, and glaze, 8 x 6 x 6 3/4 in.

Butterly has always used color in beautiful and startling ways. The color palette throughout this body of work suggests a strong mid-century modern influence. Odd oranges play off of slightly sour greens, with a hit of yellow running though. There is a shade of pink that often appears that reminds me of my mother’s Russell Wright dishes. However, within these color choices, there is never even the faintest hint of nostalgia; rather it feels that she is referencing these colors of another era and through eccentric mixing and combinations, making them her own. 

Color in Forming is a show that deserves more than one visit.  We are drawn into the dramas that happen in each sculpture. They are alternately funny, alarming, serious and joyful. Each telling a tale that winds around, in and out, up and over the small sculptures, and stays with you after you’ve left their presence.

All photo courtesy of Melissa Stern

Kathy Butterly: Color In Forming Gallery Exhibition at 48 Walker St | 24 February – 26 March 2022

Melissa Stern lives in NYC and The Hudson Valley. She studied Anthropology and Art History at Wesleyan Univ. Her mixed material sculpture and drawings are in a number of corporate and museum collections including The International Center For Collage, News Corp. Inc. JP Morgan Chase, The Arkansas Art Center, The Racine Art Museum, The Museum of Art and Design and The Wiseman Museum in Minneapolis. Her multi-media project The Talking Cure has been touring the United States since 2012, showing at The Akron Museum of Art, Redux Contemporary Art Center (Charleston), The Weisman Museum, Real Art Ways (Hartford) and The Kranzberg Art Center (St. Louis), and at The Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton.MA. She has written about art  and culture for The New York Press and CityArts for eight years and is a contributing writer to Hyperallergic and artcritical.