David Butler embraces the beauty in our flaws

The artist will exhibit 40 new digital portraits in ‘The Onyx Experience’ at Up Front Performance Space on Thursday, Feb. 29, before resuming work on a larger, more conceptual collection of paintings.
Digital paintings by David Butler
Digital paintings by David ButlerCourtesy the artist

David Butler’s gallery exhibits tend to be deeply considered experiences, built on lovingly rendered paintings that are anchored in some larger concept, be it the myriad facets of white supremacy (“Whiteland”), the enduring strength and beauty of Black women (“She Knows Who She Is”) or the often overlooked humanity inherent in those Black men and women shot and killed by the police – a subject from which Butler eventually had to distance himself owing to the heavy emotional toll the paintings exacted.

“Idyll: Interlude,” now in its final days at 700 Bryden, is maybe the purest distillation of Butler’s ability to think big, the series beginning a decade ago with a number of large-scale paintings of Black women done on paper. In the years since, the artist has continued to display the paintings, each time ripping apart some of the works and creating remixed collages by taping and stapling the images together in new configurations, allowing the pages to wrinkle, tear, crease and otherwise bear the ravages of time.

“And it [reflects] all of those things that Black and Brown women survive and thrive through,” Butler said of the exhibit, which will return for a final go round at Streetlight Guild in late March. “The work is ephemeral, because it’s done on paper, and it’s been deteriorating for 10 years. I’ve crinkled it up, taped it, velcroed it, where it has this life of its own that it’s lived. So, after the [Streetlight] show happens, I’m going to take the pieces and turn them into archival paintings, and I’m going to seal them down to panels and glaze over them, and make these women pretty in the eye of the archive. And that closing chapter will be, ‘Is she beautiful now? Is this piece beautiful now that it’s been through something?’”

Currently, Butler said, he’s in the midst of a creative rut, having hit a wall with a concept that began to gestate a couple of years ago, and which has required him to consider a new approach. But that doesn’t mean he’s stopped working. In recent months, the artist has amassed more than 100 digital portraits of people pulled from across the pop culture spectrum, including one completed just last week of Beyonce in her newly Southern-fried country music glory.

The bulk of these small paintings were done quickly, with Butler favoring quick brushstrokes and attempting to forego perfection, at least to a point. When he finished a portrait of the Notorious B.I.G., the artist initially recoiled as he took in the pursed lips and red-faced complexion staring back at him. “I don’t know what happened, but he ended up looking like Donald Trump in a paperboy hat,” Butler said. “So, I scraped it and threw it in the corner of the garage, like, ‘This one’s not gonna make it. Looks like it’ll just be Tupac here this time.’”

Roughly 40 of these studies will be available for purchase at an event billed as “The Onyx Experience,” which also features a set from the musical duo We Are Art & Soul (Renee Dion and DJ E. Marblez) and takes place at the Up Front Performance Space on Thursday, Feb. 29

Butler is no stranger to this process, and the approach has informed shows such as “50 Pieces of Black Gold” and “Black Est.,” both of which serve as spiritual cousins to “The Onyx Experience,” with the artist creating comparatively quick-hit portraits of everyone from Marsha P. Johnson to Redd Foxx.

“I’m always working in full-on show mode, but if that show isn’t working out, I need to find another way to occupy my brain,” Butler said of these more ephemeral, parenthetical outpourings. “And in making more stuff, I’m going through a process of discovery, working back through things, seeing what connects.”

Following the Up Front show, Butler said he intends to return to the concept he started exploring a couple of years back, and which surfaced as he approached age 40 and began to ask himself a series of more probing questions. “I didn’t really have a clue if I liked myself at all or not,” said Butler, who for the first time in ages began to paint self-portraits that interrogated this idea. “I wanted to investigate things like, ‘Can I appreciate a body that took me through an entire pandemic?’ … And I started to think about how I fell back on self-deprecation, like, ‘Look at my fat-ass belly. Ha, ha, ha, ha.’ And how I would lean on jokes to make myself feel better about those things I was most insecure about.”

Gradually, Butler began to turn these ideas outward, intending to explore the concept of Black masculinity, and especially Black heterosexual masculinity, by asking prospective models a series of a half-dozen questions centered on self-image and then painting a portrait of them shirtless from the waist up. “Because that’s what most of us see in the mirror in the morning when we’re getting ready,” Butler said. “So, when you see that framed portrait of yourself in the mirror, how do you feel?”

As with “Idyll,” the concept would ask viewers to consider their perception of beauty. The idea, Butler said, would be to move the community toward a point where its members could truly learn to love themselves – not in spite of their flaws but because of them – embracing the accumulated scars, wrinkles and belly folds as evidence of a life well-lived, challenges overcome, and experiences gained.

Unfortunately, Butler quickly learned that even within his circle of friends, this constituted a heavy ask, requiring a level of vulnerability many were hesitant to embrace. “Even the people I consider my brothers were taking some convincing, like, ‘Ah, man. I gotta do some sit-ups before I do that,’” Butler said, and laughed. “But after all of this stuff is done, I’m going to get right back to it.”

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