For a long time, Tyler Butcher was two separate artists.
Until 2012, Butcher was known mainly for his extremely traditional, academic-style landscapes, but hidden away in the back of his studio were the paintings no one was allowed to see. For years, he quietly worked both sides of a schism between total abstraction and something approaching romanticism. Finally, one night everything came together.
“One night in my studio, I was playing with silhouettes,” he tells me. “I wondered what would happen if I just put a silhouette over top of a portion of my abstract painting.”
We’re sitting on folding chairs in his studio at Jelinek Creative Spaces. It’s a narrow room with chintzy wood-paneled walls, a drop ceiling and 80’s office carpeting – still largely untouched by Jelinek’s slow renovation efforts. Mostly, it looks like the accounts receivable department of some mid-level local corporation might return any moment and wonder why there’s art where the fax machine used to be.
There is barely a space on the floor that isn’t covered by an unrolled canvas, a leaning panel or a small study in progress.
I try to imagine Butcher standing in front of a painting in the middle of the night, enveloped by the heaviness of this cramped room. I ask him what it felt like – that moment when everything came together for him.
“Oh my god. It was invigorating,” he says. “It was 2:30AM and I felt like it was what I’d been waiting for three years to figure out.”
The work that came out of this epiphany is the niche he’s carved for himself – work that blends abstraction, formalism and narrative using silhouettes and the abstract grounds he’d been working to perfect for so long. The work comprised his MFA thesis exhibition, Remnants, which debuted exactly one year ago at Non-Fiction Gallery.
The silhouettes that have become so integral to Butcher’s work aren’t just random shapes, of course. “All my silhouettes are sourced from family and friends I’ve drawn,” he explains. “I’ll photo copy them and cut them out. I have a huge stack of silhouettes and I’ll lay them over top of an abstract and look for a composition I like.”
“I like using people that I know because part of my process is to examine how that person sees the world,” Butcher tells me. “A lot of the colors I choose, a lot of the marks I make – I try to make them indicative of the person.”
Behind us, a canvas lays on the ground – a silhouette in cool blues and greens pooling in the center of it. It’s of Butcher’s wife, but he likes the ambiguity of the shape. It leaves the image open to his viewers, who may be able to find the silhouette of their own loved one there.
For the artist, however, there’s no mistaking that this is an abstract portrait of his wife’s personality and perspective on the world.
“She loves cool colors but she’s a very warm person. I would describe her as radiant. That’s why I wanted to bring in the yellows,” he says with the flash of a smile. “There’s two figures in her life that are really important to her. Those are represented by the darker blue areas. She sees the world with them watching over her.”
This sense of personal story has come to be a huge part of Butcher’s work, but don’t feel bad if you weren’t able to tease that out from your own viewing. He likes to keep the stories of his figures planted firmly behind them; for Butcher, each painting’s aesthetic layers are just as important as its narrative layers.
“These [paintings] come from religious stories, myths or fables – that’s the starting point of where I get a lot of ideas. For me, my faith plays an integral role in creating work because that’s the lens through which I see the world. I make art to make sense of what I see around me,” he tells me.
“Cain or Abel”, a piece from 2015, is perhaps the best example of how Butcher’s faith, artistic philosophy and personal narrative converge into one painting.
“It’s the classic story of Cain and Abel, one brother being good and the other brother being evil,” he explains. Butcher grew up with a brother, but they’re now estranged and haven’t spoken in years.
“The painting is of our silhouettes growing up together; as kids we were facing each other but as we grew up we slowly turned away from each other. He has a very stark idea of which one’s Cain and which one’s Abel. But for me, we’re cut from the same cloth. The only thing that separates us is opportunity.”
Within each figure is an abstracted ground, Butcher’s portrayal of each man’s point of view, the lens through which each sees the world. The differences are slight, almost imperceptible: a few extra splashes of red, the addition of some cooler blue-gray tones, a quickening in the rhythm of the shapes… But not much else.
It seems to me much more than some commentary on the shades of gray which define good and evil – it feels like an examination of the unseeable moments which make one person so different from – and at the same time so similar to – another.
Butcher believes we are all filled with these moments, these desires and prejudices that make us strange and beloved to each other. His faith in our ability to find the beauty and hope somewhere underneath all of that is what lays at the core of his work.
When I ask him what he wants people to know when they’re looking at his work, he tells me, “I want people to know that these are stories, just like the world is a story.”
Tyler Butcher is currently represented by Craighead Green Gallery in Dallas, TX though he still lives in Savannah, Georgia. He has a solo show coming up at the gallery on June 25. Click here to see more of Tyler’s work.