Visual Arts

Hell of a Ride

Deborah Butterfield makes horse statues, but don't hold it against her.

Her horses are not the ones of civic monuments, rendered in elegant marble and carrying some dead white war hero. Nor are they the romantic bronze beasts of flaring nostrils and lush manes cranked out by mediocre Western artists from Scottsdale to Santa Fe.

Butterfield's horses are stark creations made of scraps -- wood, steel, tin, rubber, barbed wire. They're the smartest, most subversive horse statues you'll ever see. By using the sort of junk one might find on a vacant lot to make her steeds, the Montana artist turns the classic symbol of the American West into a lovely, sad echo of the region's ruin. Her horses aren't about the mythic West of John Wayne and Zane Grey. Butterfield's skeletal animals are about the West that has been paved over and carved up into subdivisions and strip malls.

Four of Butterfield's magnificent pieces are on exhibit at the newly opened Mesa Arts Center, a $94.5 million facility that will make you stop laughing at the idea of using the words "Mesa" and "culture" in the same sentence.

Butterfield's sculpture herd occupies the main gallery. Two of the oversize horses are made of battered, rust-pocked strips of orange-painted steel twisted into animal forms. Two are made of chunks of wood bleached silvery white by exposure to the elements. In each pair of horses, one stands and the other reclines. You can see right through the horses in the gaps left by the wood and the steel, making them seem like ghosts instead of real animals. The reclining horses appear to have fallen; they tense their necks in a vain attempt to get back on their feet, like doomed beasts who fell on the march into the dog-food factory.

Here's your romantic Western fantasy, downed by pollution and sprawling cities and superhighways.

The standing horses are equally fragile and strong, their precarious stance undercutting the solid strength of the wood and steel. They're standing now on tapered legs, but they could fall, too.

Butterfield is a great abbreviator, and you can see her brilliant reduction of form best in the sublime wooden horses. She has arranged the gnarled limbs and sticks just so. There are no extra pieces; every knot, branch and shadow, even, creates the animal's form.

They're powerful pieces, partly because the horse is so timeless. Humans have been drawing and carving them since we lived in caves, so it feels as if the horse has always been with us, a trusty ally in civilization. Butterfield's crude materials and sophisticated, stripped-down forms make her horses look as much like ancient relics as the contemporary art treasures they are. (Her work is exhibited in museums and galleries around the country, and a Butterfield horse sells for around $250,000.)

Here's the source of their power: By linking the past with the present, these four horses of the apocalypse assure us the natural world goes on, no matter how many acres of KB homes we build.

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Leanne Potts