Art in America reviews Kathy Butterly

The 15 small clay sculptures in this exhilarating show were lined up on three platforms like contestants in a misfit beauty pageant, each entrant flaunting what might elsewhere be considered indignities: bulges, protrusions, pooling fluids. Butterly has referred to her works as psychological self-portraits. Simultaneously evoking psychic conditions and bodily attributes, they have a discerning presence. Most of the pieces in the exhibition (all 2012) are only about 5 inches tall, but they radiate large, honest personalities: endearingly vulnerable, unabashedly sensual and defiantly imperfect.

Butterly, 2012 winner of the Smithsonian American Art Museum Contemporary Artist Award, has extrapolated from the ceramic vessel form for 20 years, exploiting its analogies to the human body and investing that body with irreverent, sometimes salacious vigor. She borrows from and bends ceramic traditions already fabulously tweaked by George Ohr (pliable, collapsed vessel walls), Ken Price (vibrant color, goofy shapes, secret-bearing orifices) and Ron Nagle (sleek and sexy wit).

Cool Spot typifies Butterly’s finessed fusion of the clumsy, charming and ceremonial. The vaguely defeated stance of this two-handled goblet belies its bold, assured hues, among them ripe persimmon and freckled mustard. The cup’s skinny arms meander distractedly, wiggling and looping before reconnecting to the main body. A necklace of tiny white beads droops tipsily on the neck, where a crackled aquamarine crust has formed. Deep inside the vessel rests an odd little platform consisting of a blue-black ring with glacial white bits. Supporting all of this is a round, attached base of the utmost incongruous propriety, pale pink and ringed with neat repeating scallops, little blue beads and a slim yellow band.

All of the sculptures have at least vestigial pedestals, some of them intact and symmetrical, others seemingly weighed down and torqued by their burden. Either way, the bases remind us of the protocols of display, and how Butterly savors their subversion. She champions the irregular and audacious, challenging conventional notions of refinement that can apply to both decorative objects and people. Her pervasive use of pink evokes flesh, but also references stereotypes of the feminine, of only to defy them. The beauty in these pieces is not restrained or deferential but active, verb-driven, all about impolite squeezing, pinching, and pushing. The glazes, too, are generally far from demure, running to electric orange and green, dark plum and vivid cherry. Butterly makes surprising and sometimes disconcerting neighbors of an array of textures: glossy and wet, like the interior of a cheek; delicately fuzzy, as in moss; creepily granular, as in spreading mold; pocked and desiccated, like earth; rubber-band matte; and congealed into hardness, like old chewing gum.

Titled “Lots of little love affairs,” this show suggested, over and over again, the sense of something private exposed. Such uneasy contradictions abound in Butterly’s complicated and sympathetic work. Each of her humble objects is a declaration of pride, every peculiar and awkward little vessel a testament to grace.

—Leah Ollman