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TOM BUTLER 2014 Gouache on Albumen print


Tom Butler’s highly individual take on the appropriation of found images

Text: Zavier Ellis | Images: Tom Butler


Zavier Ellis:  Let’s start with the work. Can you outline your intentions and the meaning behind it?

Tom Butler: I’m interested in placing an object in space and using the photograph as a readymade environment in which to place something. At first that was landscape based, where I would place a barrier in a street on an antique postcard in order to divide an open space. With the cabinet cards, the mask became the barrier, where the identity of the sitter becomes concealed. It amounts to the same thing, as I am interested in revealing and concealing things within readymade, photographic source material.

Is it important that you use found material? Can you foresee yourself working with a blank canvas?

The thing about a readymade is that I have something to respond to straight away. It’s like being given a lead up to a joke or an improvisation game where you have to respond quickly to something unexpected and I find that very exciting. What’s nice about the cabinet cards is that they’re all the same format and yet each one is unique so that I can respond in a different way to each sitter.

Who or what are your influences?

I studied art history before going to art school and really got into Sturm und Drang. I studied Caspar David Friedrich, Carl Blechen and Karl Friedrich Schinkel, learning about these beautiful landscapes and paintings of ruined cathedrals in a Gothic or romantic context. At art school I got into post-minimalism and Robert Morris. I became interested in the interaction between sculpture and the viewer. I found this strange link between the two where I wanted to inhabit the same space of the artwork. I began to make interactive sculpture at Chelsea and by the time I got to the Slade for my MFA, my work was flattening out and becoming more and more two dimensional.

The ideas of romanticism and minimalism are diametric opposites to me, so how do you move between them?

It’s like a palette. Your tongue has a sensation for sweet things and then craves something salty; something decaying that then needs cleansing. As an art historian, I would enjoy approaching these different things with a clean palette each time and then I’d bring it together in a way that only I can, immersing myself in different languages.

It is interesting that you referred to yourself as an art historian, which makes me wonder why you chose to study Art History before Fine Art?

I wasn’t ready for art school but I knew I wanted to learn all I could about art in a historical context. I wanted to learn the theory before the practice.

I’m always intrigued when you discuss your two-dimensional work in sculptural terms. Can you expand on this

I studied sculpture because I was interested in things. It comes back to Robert Morris’ idea of interacting with the artwork physically. But I eventually relocated my practice by making drawings of negative spaces or making in-camera multiple exposures. I began trying to express the same ideas but with drawing or photography in two dimensions rather than large-scale objects. I still see my current work as sculptural interventions with paint in a photographic environment.

I consider the method of working over or manipulating imagery to be a genre in its own right now. I think immediately of the Chapman Brothers; John Stezaker; Julie Cockburn; Claire Pestaille; Maurizio Anzeri, etc. Inherent to that is the question of originality. How do you navigate this?

I navigate it as honestly as I can. I have to be cognisant of the fact that I’m working with found material but I have to respond to it entirely originally. That is ‘the art bit’, as Ed Allington would say. All of these artists work in a different way and my intervention has to be personal.

Even though you are working gouache over the original images, they remain seamless, suggesting you are making a conscious effort to interweave your work into the original piece.

I see the painting as a means to an end. It’s the technique by which I am able to intervene and contribute my ‘art bit’ to these images. I want it to be as seamless as possible to seduce the eye and to draw the viewers in so they can look for the edges of the intervention. This is quite sculptural again – the delineation between object and space. 

This takes me on to the content of the work. To me the subject is overcome by something from within – like a manifestation of the unconscious. It also makes me think of freak shows. How relevant is this to you?

It is about the dignity of the sitter. I’m fascinated by freak shows but it’s more about striving against adversity and the struggle to survive as an individual. I’m not out to make the sitters in my cabinet cards into freaks or to obliterate them in any way. I’m interested in borrowing their image, responding to it, and creating something new in as dignified a way as possible.

Can you talk about the more sinister, macabre element in your work?

There’s potentially something sinister in the concealed. That’s ok – it shouldn’t be filtered out – and I think there’s a way of expressing it, as there was in the Gothic. My work is at its most successful when it challenges the viewer.

When we met three years ago, you’d already exhibited widely and you now also have strong representation in Belgium and have been very successful at many high-end international art fairs. How has this affected you?

It sharpens and simplifies my thinking. I have to deliver. It has become less about digging into my soul in my studio and more about being a professional enterprise.

Some might think this is a shame. Many people might question the notion that once you achieve success you have to put professionalism above romanticism.

That’s fine. I question it myself. I still have to remain true to myself and make work that is authentic. But it’s important to realise that you are part of a larger system beyond the studio.

As someone who is invited to the odd art college to lecture on professional practice, I think it’s problematic that it isn’t taught in many art schools. Do you have any feelings about that?

I do. We had very little at undergraduate level and it would have been wonderful to have more gallerists and dealers visit colleges. I think the rooms would be packed.

Related to this, do you have any advice for younger, emerging artists?        

Yes, put in as many applications for open call shows as possible. Keep it simple; keep positive; don’t bullshit; and be as professional as you can from the start. Most importantly, be tenacious!


A full suite of Tom Butler’s cabinet cards are available from Charlie Smith Gallery, 2nd Floor, 336 Old Street, London EC1V 9DR

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