Eleanor Louise Butt
"It very often happens that along the years painters simplify their work. It's possible that at the beginning they try to say too much, and little by little, even unknown to them, they realise that what they need most is not an image per se, but an emotion, an 'otherness', through an image." - Etel Adnan[i]
According to Ancient Greek mythology, Mnemosyne was the goddess of memory. Descending from the primordial deities, the daughter of Uranus and Gaia, Mnemosyne gave birth to the nine Muses, the sources of inspiration for the arts, philosophy and science. The influential ancient Latin text Rhetorica ad Herennium describes memory as the ‘treasury of things invented’, making the link between memory and invention, or creation. In Mnemonics, Eleanor Louise Butt mines her conscious and subconscious memories to create a new series of paintings. Mnemonic devices are systems or techniques used to aid in the retention and recall of information. They are so-called because they act as triggers that help us to remember. For Eleanor, each brush stroke is a reference, a trigger for a memory, emotion or experience.
Eleanor’s practice has found a quietly confident rhythm. By simplifying her practice to focus singularly on painting (she previously incorporated photography, ceramics and installation), Eleanor has fine-tuned her visual language and personal aesthetic. The paintings are less narrative, more emotive and gestural. Forms and gestures interact on the canvas, creating movements, relationships and dialogues that record a personal cartography.
Surface texture is key to the works. Eleanor has moved away from working on paper to using more heavily textured materials for the canvas, such as coarse Belgian linen, hessian and jute. The surface can take weeks to prepare – stretching, priming, preparing the ground, painting and rubbing back and layering over and over until it creates the perfect setting for the conversation to take place. The resulting rough, tactile nature of the canvas surface allows the quality of the oil paints to shine, bold and radiating, almost three dimensional. The brightness of the yellow paint – a colour that features heavily on Eleanor’s palette – causes optical effects and after-images, humming with a soft vibration, strong and warm and tactile.
Eleanor has narrowed in on two distinct styles, existing in conversation, both contrasting and complementing each other. One style is more generous of colour and surface, embracing a method of DIY looseness through an intuitive, trial and error process of applying and removing paint, pouring, rubbing and layering. She allows the marks to pose questions and receive answers in a reciprocal relationship. The other style is more restrained, with shapes and lines floating amidst large expanses of negative space. Recurring forms – the orb, the shadow, and loose, gestural lines – constitute Eleanor’s own visual language, a set of archetypal symbols which she utilises and revises through her work. These gestures can be read as choreographed scores, mapping movements through locations both abstract and remembered. An awareness of space and composition, developed through her experimentation with three-dimensional sculptural forms, is evident. I can visualise a body in motion – light footsteps across the canvas, a turn, a pause, a jump, a hold. And I think of Anna Halprin’s choreographed dances, an ode to the environment, recorded via symbols on paper but enacted by bodies in space.
Growing up at a historic property named 'Delara' in the Dandenong Ranges, has influenced Eleanor’s engagement with physical and imagined landscapes. The house was set within an historic garden oasis, designed by the influential Australian landscape designer Edna Walling. Returning frequently through dreams, Eleanor walks along the meandering moss covered pathways and winding stone steps and walls with a sense of longing. Memory of place and the traces of movement throughout this physical space are a constant source of inspiration for Eleanor. She has credited the experience of “being immersed in an entirely considered landscape” with learning to consider balance, symmetry, colour and space, and “the way that a composition can work in synergy with physical movement.”[ii]
Muscle memory is generally understood as the body’s ability to learn movements through repetition. For example, a dancer learning new choreography will repeat the steps until their muscles have absorbed the movements completely so to be able to perform them automatically or unconsciously. Many dancers use music as a mnemonic device to trigger the memory associated with the movement. Neuroscientists have suggested that muscle memory works because the brain creates specific neural pathways, or maps, to aid memory. Therefore, the human body carries a trace of the memories, which are played out through movement. The same could be said for painting, wherein the artist’s hand moves the paintbrush across the canvas in order to perform the gestures of memories and lived experience. In both cases, the body is the medium.
[i] Etel Adnan, Le poids du monde, Ambit, no. 229, 2017, p. 12.
[ii] Eleanor Louise Butt, Artist statement for ‘Gardening is not a Rational Act’ at c3 Contemporary Art Space, September 2017.