By Sara Muthi
Susan Buttner uses a wide vocabulary of materials, responding to sensations and fuelled by intensive research she translates intuition into material experience.
Words are known to have meaning while objects are known to have utility. This dichotomy is present in Buttner’s work but in an unconventional sense. The meaning of a word is said to be two-fold: first it denotes a standard, ‘dictionary like’ definition; secondly it connotes a whole set of other meanings. Put another way, connotations are all of the meanings that are not in the dictionary. All the non-standard ways of using language and objects. Alternatively, we can reject this two-fold theory of meaning and remove denotation as meaning in favour of full-fledged connotation. Ludwig Wittgenstein famously stated that ‘the meaning of a word is its use in the language’. Thus, language cannot be exhausted by definition alone but needs to be considered in its broader pragmatic and creative instances, for it is us who give meaning to a word, not any one copy-writer in Oxford. Similarly, we can extend this thought towards objects. Chairs are generally used to seat a single person, typically with four legs and a backrest. If that is the denotation of a chair, its connotation is that which is its actual reality. Chairs exist stacked, deconstructed, in kips and used as step-ladders. Visual art allows us not to reimagine objects but rather reveal that objects and language are often not exhausted by their denotation, in reality all that exists is connotation; or, its use in language.
Buttner’s work is not a manipulation of reality, rather a truer representation of it. Working from within a cultural system of objects she makes clear the unclarity of materials. By which insulation pipe sheath, polyurethane foam, and metal brackets do not denote their ‘general’ use in industrial contexts but reveals their form and properties, without associated utility. Meaning for a body of work like Chewing Gum in my hair exists in the connotations between items. Connotations between the materials from within an object; the relationship made between the acrylic on birch ply and the nails that mount it to the wall and the objects around it. Each item, each material, each intentional and unintentional fold or stretching of fabric and paint reveals a new, deeper reality we do not find simply by denoting utility. Rather than any didactic motivation, Buttner allows her practice to, as Guy Debord would say, dérive (or drift).
Put simply, her objects live in contraction and flux. Her objects are hard and soft. Intuitive but logical. Harsh + sensitive. Comforting in suffering. Empathetic despite indifferent. Harmful—confabulation. Supple yet violent. Silent beyond bold. Flesh mixed oil. Burnt in rubber. Scented by glass.
Buttner trusts her material to have meaning and potential at every level, before and after the studio. This allows the deeper reality of materiality and language to take centre stage. In this, her work finds its destination within each viewer.
Susan Buttner’s work Chewing Gum in my hair is on display at Draíocht from the 16th September 2021 — 22 January 2022 as part of PLATFORM 2021 – Worlds of Their Own, exhibiting alongside Ellen Duffy, John Rainey and Katherine Sankey.
Sara Muthi is a writer and curator based in Dublin. She is Managing Editor of in:Action.