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Exhibitions

A Beloved Collection - Kathy Butterly at James Cohan Gallery

Explore Kathy Butterly's whimsical ceramic sculptures spanning nearly three decades, curated from Elizabeth Harvey Levine's private collection and presented at James Cohan Gallery. Meticulously crafted and infused with humor, each petite porcelain and earthenware sculpture invites an intimate exploration into Butterly's vibrant artistic evolution.
By: Ilsy Jeon
November 22, 2023

James Cohan Gallery - Tribeca, NYC 
48 WALKER ST
NEW YORK, NY 10013

photo courtesy: James Cohan Gallery

For over three decades, New York-based ceramic artist Kathy Butterly has ventured into the realms of color, form, and the intricacies of ceramics. Her relentless dedication and mastery of clay have solidified her position as a prominent and revered figure in contemporary ceramics. Butterly's remarkable body of work comprises small-scale sculptures characterized by meticulous and whimsical details, evocative colors and compositions, and unparalleled technical expertise.
Recently, Butterly showcased her tenacious commitment to ceramics in an enthralling mini-retrospective titled A Beloved Collection presented by the James Cohan Gallery. Concurrently with the exhibition at their Tribeca location, the gallery also exhibited Butterly’s latest sculptures at the ADAA: The Art Show. Although the exhibitions have concluded, selected works remain available for purchase. View MoCA/NY's President, Judy Schwartz on-site video interview with Kathy Butterly, Elizabeth Harvey Levine, and collector David Kirschenbaum.

A BELOVED COLLECTION, 1994-2022

Works from the private collection of Elizabeth Harvey Levine

Upon entering the viewing room at James Cohan Gallery, visitors are immediately enveloped by a vibrant ensemble of sculptures spanning from 1994 to 2022, offering a comprehensive voyage through the evolution of Kathy Butterly's artistic vision. The thirty-six petite sculptures arranged chronologically, are sourced from the private collection of Elizabeth Harvey Levine, an ardent and longtime patron of Butterly’s work.

The space unfolds with delicately adorned and opulently ornate sculptures positioned on the left side of the gallery—the genesis—and crescendos to Butterly's most recent lively and gestural creations. Despite their demure scale—excluding two exceptions—each sculpture exudes a grand energy, brimming with vitality, distinct personalities, and animated expressions.

“It is a beloved collection because each piece in this magical collection is such a magical gem. They’re infused with her sense of humor, they all have sensuous body folds, they’re meticulously executed, and the details are beyond what people are willing to explore in ceramics.” - Elizabeth Harvey Levine

Humor imbues the exhibition not only in the cheeky and amusing configurations of the sculptures but also in their titles, setting a tone and offering a glimpse into Butterly's intentions and interpretations. For instance, a lemon-yellow glazed figure adorned with oval green forms on its lip and hip emanates refined elegance with polished gold accents, yet it comically bears the title "Nancy Beans," adding a playful twist.

Associating these titles with the sculptures is almost as enjoyable as experiencing the pieces themselves, inviting speculation, contemplation, and insight into Butterly’s mind.

This collection, akin to a personal diary, exemplifies Butterly's artistic innovations in composition, color palette, and treatment of glaze while documenting significant and pivotal periods in both her personal and creative life.

Pointing to a piece named "Knititation," Butterly reminisces, “I was pregnant. [I remember] just the waiting and the knitting." She elaborates further on the show, "It’s my diary, my diary is on display. I knew exactly what I was thinking and what I was doing and each one is very specific to a time period of my life.”

"Knititation" beautifully encapsulates Butterly's earlier works—the lyrical pastel and shocking neon color palette, skin-like folds, intricate line marks, and fine carvings, complemented by a whimsical and playful "pedestal." It vividly showcases her technique of painting with and on clay.

Her painterly treatment of clay can be attributed to her early studies as a painter when she was drawn to ceramics but was reluctant to fully accept the medium as she viewed ceramics as functional pottery ware. It wasn’t until she met Viola Frey, an artist known for her non-functional, figurative, animated ceramic sculptures and painterly expressions, that she embraced ceramics.

Intuitively created, Butterly starts with a ready-made cast, molding it into a functional vessel before sculpting, folding, denting, and smoothing the clay. Subsequently, she applies glazes and subjects the disfigured vessel to multiple firings, often reaching up to 20 to 30 times. The layers of clay and glazes illustrate Butterly’s devotion and profound connection with each piece imbuing them with a unique history and seducing you into a portal awaiting exploration.

Tiny pearlescent beadings, crackling and crystalline glaze textures, sharp and fluid surfaces—the porcelain and earthenware amorphous sculptures gift us with a splendid visual orgasm. They not only serve as pages from Butterly's diary but also as testaments to her exceptional technical skill and artistic aspirations.

With their diminutive scale, the sculptures beckon viewers to draw closer, inviting a magnified appreciation of every minute and intricately carved detail, cultivating an intimate relationship with each piece. They entice, hypnotize, surprise, and inspire a desire to explore and decode their narratives and language—a journey into their portal, into their distinctive universe.

“[Butterly’s sculptures] are irresistible,” Elizabeth Harvey Levine states, “and Kathy, herself, is the most genuine person I know and her pieces are straightforward and honest, complex, fused with humor and that is what Kathy is. They are just an embodiment of her.”


Visit James Cohan Gallery at 48 WALKER ST NEW YORK, NY 10013, or explore and learn more about A Beloved Collection and Kathy Butterly online: James Cohan Gallery

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