at Zolla/Lieberman Gallery

Deborah Butterfield has been making the same work of art for more than 15 years. Working humbly in mud and sticks, monumentally in bronze, or–as in eight recent works on view through January 2 at Zolla/Lieberman–in old steel, Butterfield unapologetically explores the emotive potential of a single form. Her subject is the horse, that most mythic of domesticated animals. And in the peculiar exchange between artist and audience that is perhaps best described as a kind of romance, Butterfield still manages to win us over with this timeworn subject.

There are few subjects more prominent in the history of art. The horse has had a pivotal role in labor, travel, and sport in cultures throughout the world and seems to symbolize the intersection of nature and civilization; horses have been frequently depicted in the arts of both East and West, from ancient times to the present. We moderns are perhaps most familiar with the figure of the horse as a pedestal for human forms. Artists at the turn of the century fulfilled countless commissions by dotting city landscapes with likenesses of local stars and national heroes mounted on horses. Riding above passersby throughout years of technological progress, sooty and anomalous in the haze of automobile exhaust, these figures on horseback nevertheless seem larger and grander than the real people they memorialize–somehow undaunted by changing times.

The myth endures. One of my favorite local examples is the mural in the McDonald’s at the corner of Chicago and State that depicts Jane Byrne, Harold Washington, and other broad-shouldered power brokers on horseback, leaping out through a dramatic rendering of the Chicago skyline into the pedestrian world of burgers and fries.

As fate would have it, I walked straight from lunch under their gaze to have a look at Butterfield’s remarkable new work. Graceful, spindly-legged, and slightly larger than life, Butterfield’s horses transform Zolla/Lieberman’s airy space into an acutely aestheticized barn. Four standing horses in the front galleries quickly make one recall memorial statuary–except that they’re all riderless. The animal itself is the center of Butterfield’s imagination and the sole object of our gaze. The standing figures are striking in their monumentality, while two reclining horses are compellingly naturalistic. Butterfield’s meticulous craftsmanship gives an organic quality to all the forms as if, like the toys in fairy tales, they might come to life when adults leave the room.

The near-living quality of the horses is all the more striking given the chilly medium. Red, for example, is a full-size (76 by 113 by 29 inches) standing horse rendered in found industrial steel. It is impossible to determine the material’s original shape and use, though hints of its past remain. Rusty at the edges, irregularly formed, and covered with the luminous blue paint of its earlier life, this industrial fodder finds its second (third? fourth?) incarnation in the form of a domesticated animal companion, its head gently lowered to waist height as if to gather treats from a human hand. In the back gallery the much smaller (32 by 48 by 14 inches) Roy appears to have been crafted out of old commercial signage. Blocklike letters s and z are two of the dozen or so steel pieces Butterfield has reformed and rearranged with uncanny finesse to suit her own purposes.

For all their naturalism, many of the sculptures seem ready to crumble back into junk. Ismani, another full-size work constructed of rusty white piping and channel steel, is a skeletal, linear form. Its complex latticework construction defines a contoured shape from the material’s brittle, straight edges. As in children’s stick drawings, the voids between the bits of steel help define the expressionistic whole.

Despite Butterfield’s craft and the historical weight of her subject, her art has been criticized for being too narrow. She has after all been sculpting horses for over a decade. And while she has experimented with different materials and scales over the years, she makes the same form over and over again. What compels her, and why does her art remain compelling?

A recently published catalog documenting Butterfield’s career carries a photograph of the smiling artist nose-to-nose with two equine friends. Born in 1949 in San Diego and trained in California and Maine, Butterfield moved to Bozeman, Montana, in the late 1970s and taught for many years at Montana State University. Much of her audience is urban, but she herself is a country girl now, and this fact may woo city folk into seeing a kind of pastoral authenticity in her work. Out west, out there on the range where the air is cleaner and where people may actually know how to ride, out there is where beautiful horses are made.

But you needn’t travel that far to see one. I first encountered a Butterfield horse on a chilly day near my home in Minnesota, and I remember that the green-hued animal appeared to have been made out of a hundred bits of discarded wood. Startled that anybody would leave such a sculpture outside in the snow, I touched the sculpture to gauge its sturdiness and discovered that the whole thing was made of cast bronze. Its craftsmanship was so impressive that I almost forgot how hokey this figural form looked in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, an unabashedly modern place dominated by formal abstraction.

That was in 1988, when the art market was still booming, riding the same wave of easy credit that was bankrolling the gleaming new skylines of Minneapolis and Chicago and making city living fashionable again. I was just out of college then and preparing to move to the big city–Chicago. The world seemed ripe with possibility, and Butterfield’s horse looked a little old-fashioned.

In subsequent years the credit has run out, new office buildings stand empty, and the art world has hit hard times. Still unsure of how to tighten our belts in the new decade we’ve renewed our interest in supposedly simpler things–in figuration and “family values,” for example, in Birkenstocks and home cooking. Butterfield’s sculptures have taken on a new resonance, too. Embodying the idea of a simpler past and a more straightforward relationship between human beings and the natural world, these scrap-metal horses encourage us to believe that gentle, noble things can still be found in an uncertain and difficult present.

In recent months I’ve made several visits to Harvard, Illinois, a city that was once a vital center of the dairy trade. A sculpture of a cow graces a prominent downtown intersection, its pedestal embellished with a plaque that reads “Milk capital of the world.” The dairy economy has waned in Harvard, but just a stone’s throw from the town center suburban development is booming. Out there at the end of the Metra line, where city folks go to pick apples and choose Christmas trees on weekend afternoons, one is tempted to believe that life is simpler, less harried, more in rhythm with the cycles of the land.

Along the Northwest Tollway toward Harvard large signs advertising equine amusements beckon automobile travelers. One of the more exotic diversions, Medieval Times, entertains customers with sword fights, medieval games, and jousting matches performed by six knights on horseback. Private ranches and rental stables can be found just off the service roads.

Perhaps this stretch of highway should be listed in local tour guides. Imagine the entry: “Linking the romance of the country with the heart of a troubled, changing Chicago, the I-90 artery runs straight through the landscape of artist Deborah Butterfield’s myth.” Out west on 90 about a thousand miles or so you hit the first exit for Bozeman.