We visited our special release artist Tom Butler to ask him about his practice:
Hi Tom, your cabinet card project is a formidable body of work that collectors globally are well aware of. But where did the original idea come from?
Thank you. I started drawing on vintage postcards when I left art school because I had little money for material, no workshop and I was moving around a lot. They were like small readymade environments and each one gave me something to respond to. Before I knew it I was carrying round a small file of bizarre sculptural proposals of barriers dividing towns, huge bugs climbing buildings or skies filled with balloons wondering how to make them real, only to realise that the appropriated card was the work. Then one day I was in a thrift store and bought a stack of cabinet cards instead. The landscape became portrait, and the work started giving me chills
I tend to read them in psychoanalytical terms. On one hand they could be a manifestation of the id; on the other there is a deep sense of the uncanny. Is this something you have considered?
Perhaps it can be both. I was completely taken with Freud’s writing when I was first introduced to it at Winchester but I’m wary of translating anything too specific because it can easily become an illustration. As fascinating as I find it, I prefer to think of psychoanalysis historically. Any excesses that manifest in the work could be attributed to the id (or the superego for that matter) but it’s subjective - my id probably doesn’t look like your id. I think that’s why I’m drawn to the Gothic. I feel better able to work with tropes of uncanniness and try to create a feeling instead of presenting something too literal.
You periodically introduce new motifs, for example geometric patterns, flowers, bandages and hair. How and why do these come about?
I’m constantly looking for ways to simultaneously conceal and reveal my sitters because I find the ways in which we hide ourselves can actually be quite performative. Hair is fascinating. I was a shy child and I grew my fringe so I always had something to hide behind. Looking back, I feel it was a kind of necessary performance which somehow kept me safe.
For me, all the motifs have something to do with control. I cover the figure only so much. It’s important I leave something, even just a glinting eye, to ensure the sitter is still very much there, and often, looking right back at you.
Photography has always been fundamental to your work. What is the relationship here between photography and painting? How and why do these come about?
I think photography is both magical and problematic. Despite it being almost 200 years old I still don’t think we fully understand what a photograph is and how it affects us when we look at one. For me it really comes from the relationship between photography and drawing. If you look closely at one of my cabinet cards you’ll find the painted marks are much closer to a pencil’s which I think comes from my training in sculpture. According to Fox Talbot, he wouldn’t have tried to fix photographic images if he weren’t such a frustrated draftsman. Photographs present a far more fictionalised version of reality than we realise, arguably as much as a drawing or a painting, so why not combine them?
Are they embellished? Or are they defaced?
A little of both. These are photographs of real people so I struggle with the idea of defacement. Embellishment implies something decorative but that needn’t be a bad thing. Art exists to entertain and instruct (in that order) and you can’t be an artist without being comfortable with destroying things in order to make something new.
There is a sense of permanence underlying the intention of the cabinet card but work on paper (or card) could be considered ephemeral. What are your thoughts about this duality?
Depending on how it’s treated, paper is far more permanent than we think. In the last hundred years whole city blocks have been built and torn down again, yet it’s easy to find postcards and photographs that are much older.
And finally, what are the benefits of working with paper?
I think it’s vital for any artist to be able to communicate their ideas on a sheet of paper just as well as if they had all the materials, workshops and funds they could possibly want. I started appropriating postcards and cabinet cards out of necessity but soon realised I could populate a world with the characters I was creating and that was far bigger and wider reaching. Paper is simple, portable and shouldn’t be overlooked. It holds our trace in such unique ways. I remember turning over a photograph and finding a fingerprint that was over a century old - it was like finding treasure embedded within a wall.