Cultures of Hybridity
Ambreen Butt’s new show, Home and the World, at the Bernard Toale Gallery, is best described as—okay. The show is not particularily impressive, and begs the question: Is this the final product of an artist who won the Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA) award its inaugural year?
The answer to that question isn’t entirely clear. Butt’s work shows thought and potential, but the works currently on view at Bernard Toale do not quite succeed in their announced mission.
Though Butt was born in Pakistan, she was educated at the Massachusetts College of Art. The exhibition statement explains that through her art, Butt “searches for a common bond...between the two cultures [of Pakistan and the U.S.].” It continues, “For Ambreen, home is not a location, but a place where she finds comfort—a place where she is free to live in the world of her intellect.” One hopes that this statement references Butt’s larger body of work, as the current exhibition fails to fully articulate this cultural struggle.
Butt begins to falter in her choice of medium and her application of that medium. Resembling ancient Persian manuscripts, Butt’s drawings consist of interlaced pages of semi-transparent dot patterns with a small watercolor over-painting. Additionally, little white circles with words such as “honor,” “doubts” and “passion” are strategically placed on the finished product. The over-paintings are always of either a young turbaned man or a woman, whose face and expression are eerily reminiscent of Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits. Yet while the patterns may look pretty, the ultimate effect of the paintings is very unimpressive. The repeated layering of the dots tends to dissolve the bright colors of the bottom pages, and the result is a dull, washed-out background. While well drawn, the watercolor over-paintings lack emotion and often don’t convincingly address the themes of place and dislocation.
The most technically interesting painting in this exhibit is probably the result of an error in the creative process. In the second painting (all of the works are untitled), the back pages are sewn together too tightly so that the edges bulge and create a mildly appealing three-dimensional effect. In this set of three paintings, a man and a woman sniff flowers branching off of opposite ends of a stalk. Near the tips, the plant is lined with the words “passion” and “love,” while the middle contains the words “bad,” “wrong” and “wall.” Especially when one learns that Butt’s husband still lives in Pakistan, it forms an interesting commentary about the difficulty in communicating emotions between men and women, husbands and wives.
The seventh and eighth paintings—which portray a man and a woman drawing blood by pricking the palms of their hands with nails—are by far the best works of the small exhibition. The turbaned man, who has a tiny pager stuck in his belt, has a slightly smug turn of the mouth. His drops create a perfect ring of circles where they fall. By contrast, the drops of the woman, who looks a bit more uncertain, splash in midair and fail to form a pattern. This suggests a subtle statement about the uncertain role of women in society, whether in the U.S. or Pakistan.
Butt’s work also touches upon her relationship with the world as a place of comfort. Represented by a potted plant in many of her paintings, Butt’s symbol for the world shifts between the figure’s lap, head and shoulders. In one painting, its tendrils wrap around the artist, partially shielding her from falling bubbles containing words such as “doubt” and “suspicion.” In another, they protect a serene woman from the attack of three vicious birds. In a third, the plant rests on her head and sprouts words such as “identity,” “loyalty” and “humanity.” Despite its blandness, this device occasionally works.
Butt’s attempt to confront issues of her hybrid cultural identity in her art falls short because the viewer fails to draw something from the experience of looking at her art. The watercolors are small and indistinct, the word bubbles are nearly impossible to read, and the background patterns don’t add substance to most of the pieces. There is little visual differentiation between the paintings and overall, they are not visual stimulating.
As one viewer said when he saw the postcard announcing the show, “It makes a nice postcard, sure. But as for a masterpiece? Nah.”
Home and the World
Bernard Toale Gallery
Through November 24