This month Charlie Smith London opens its doors to the striking and intricate work of Tom Butler in his second solo exhibition at the gallery, titled Inhabitants. Creating a fascinating duality between horror and beauty, Butler’s work explores our engagement with the historical in the contemporary. His appropriation of Victorian cabinet cards introduces the abstract and surreal to portraiture, where he uses vivid colouring and reconfiguration to alter his historical subjects.
Wedged between the vibrant and creative neighbourhoods of Hoxton and Shoreditch, Charlie Smith London sits along Old Street. A gold plaque pronounces its title on the door, sidled beside a snug public house. After a short trip up the creaking wooden staircase, the white walls of the gallery illuminate the space with brilliant natural light from the windows, which is complemented by the rich, dark wood flooring. Charlie Smith London appears to be the perfect setting for Butler’s uncanny appropriations, enhancing visitors viewing experience not only through the historic location but through clean and minimal curating.
Butler’s fascinating works come as a product of his skill and delicacy using the complementary mediums of photography and gouache. Colourful geometric shapes dance over and between the different Victorian portraits, subtly modifying them and at time’s covering and obscuring the subjects altogether. Clouds of tiny triangles and Klimt-esque decorative circles cast a haze over the nineteenth century individuals: school groups become patchwork portraits, young women become hirsute creatures, and couples become escalating colonies of flowers and shrubs. Other, more ominous works haunt the walls with black holes and menacing gaping mouths where faces should be. This element of Butler’s practice brings in themes of horror and the unknown, particularly because his chosen subject matter reminds us of the past and those members of society no longer living amongst us.
The way in which Butler brings new dimensions to each work reinforces his artistic ability to modernise the historic. He makes these Victorian cabinet cards relevant to the contemporary by manipulating and modifying each individual to exist in an alternate, imagined plane. Juxtaposing the works eerie personalities is the invasion of detailed, complex beauty which affirms itself through Butler’s considerable technical skill as a manipulator of gouache and his found images.
Hung in a similar way to that of a traditional Victorian Salon, Inhabitants is a gem of an exhibition; Butler’s ability to transform existing images allows the old to become exotic and the morbid to become exquisite. Inhabitants is on at Charlie Smith London – 336 Old Street, 2nd Floor, London EC1V 9DR – until Saturday 28th March 2015, open Wednesday to Saturday 11am – 6pm or by appointment. You can also see Butler’s work at Volta Art Fair in New York, where Charlie Smith London will be representing him between the 5th and 8th March 2015.