Meditative Math

Ben Butler’s two large sculptures and seven drawings at Zg are deeply meditative, relying on the mindful, quiet repetition and symmetry of a mandala–an aid to contemplation that frees the mind from everyday concerns. Nest, occupying much of the floor in Zg’s main gallery, is composed of 11 labyrinthine frames in unfinished poplar. The wooden bars that form each frame are fastened together with glue and nails to create an openwork shape like an elongated turtle shell or seedpod. Each such frame nestles inside another that’s slightly larger. The other sculpture, A Shaker Melody, is a stack of boxes made of unfinished wood. Butler’s 2003 show at Zg included three sculptures of tilted tables, and he’s also made a piece called Nesting Barn, which was similar to Nest but consisted of barn shapes. He says he began to find specific references superfluous because what he was really interested in was “something that can evoke many processes, from human construction to natural growth.”

The repeating forms of Butler’s work are organized according to carefully calculated changes in shape, color, and proportion. In Nest the length of each piece of wood in one frame is 80 percent of that of the frame just outside it, but the thickness of each piece is 90 percent of that in the next. As a result the work is open and airy toward the outside but becomes denser toward its center. Walking around Nest produces constantly shifting perspectives on its core and the impression of a rhythmic visual flutter.

Butler, who grew up mostly in Winnetka and now lives on Long Island, was interested in math and science as a teenager, and in college he considered a double major in art and neuroscience. He ended up majoring in art, and in 2003 got an MFA from the School of the Art Institute. Chuck Close was an important influence: originally an abstract expressionist painter who “had every variable open to him,” Butler says, Close eventually placed “extreme limitations” on his process to produce his pointillist portraits. Butler’s decision to limit his shapes and processes was also influenced by one of his professors, John Bisbee, who makes a single sculpture “out of exactly one ton of 12-inch spikes.”

Butler’s abstract drawings are even more freeing to the mind than his sculptures. During a residency in Vermont last year, he was working on a series of black-and-white drawings. He didn’t really know where to take the series, but after accidentally spilling coffee on a study he was doing, he thought that the stains added “a kind of warmth.” The next day he began using the tea he was drinking, applying it with a brush. Finding he couldn’t get any but the lightest tones, he started mixing black ink into the tea to produce deeper shades. “Suddenly these very dry, systematic drawings became a little more engaging,” he says. All seven of the drawings at Zg were made with ink and tea.

Butler begins with a pencil sketch of regular shapes changing in accordance with a detailed plan. In one untitled work, each portion of a nine-by-nine grid contains four squares nested within one another and growing progressively darker as the squares get smaller. But only at the very center of the grid are all four squares concentric; the further one gets from the center, the more skewed the “stack” becomes, until at the paper’s corners the darkest square is at the very edge. As your eye travels out from the middle, things become more and more askew–as if you were falling off the edge of the world.

Quinto Acuto, named after the type of Gothic arch it depicts, shows ten rows of such arches, 12 small ones in the row at the top and 3 large ones at the bottom. As the rows appear to recede, those farthest away seem to be dissolving into pure light. Butler made the outlines of the arches, consisting of ten bands in the bottom row, thinner toward the top by removing one band for each row. This little mathematical game helps him make a great point: even mystery and beauty evolve logically from the seen world.

Ben Butler

Where: Zg, 300 W. Superior

When: Through February 5

Info: 312-654-9900

Nancy Paschke, 1939-2005

Nancy Paschke, an artist whose quirky, endearing portraits can be seen at Judy A. Saslow Gallery through February 26, died in her sleep on January 17. She’d had Parkinson’s disease for three decades and lived in a Chicago nursing home, where her husband, celebrated Chicago painter Ed Paschke, had visited her regularly. He died, also in his sleep, at Thanksgiving.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Charles Eshelman, Fred Camper.