Ben Butler’s "Cloud Morphology" at Crosstown Arts 

This show marks a new direction for Butler.

Scholars’ Rock

Scholars’ Rock

f you've never heard Kate Bush's 1980s pop hit, "Cloudbusting," you should. The song tells the story of Wilhelm Reich, a brilliant Austrian psychoanalyst whose work was widely discredited after he began to theorize that the universe operated around "orgone" power — a psychosexual, orgasm-based cosmic energy capable of controlling human affairs. In 1951, Reich built a machine called a "cloudbuster" out of 15 aluminum tubes that he believed could destroy "orgone radiation" in the atmosphere and create rain.

Reich's story is tragic and familiar, a true-believers swan dive through a hostile, scientific century. In Bush's song, Reich is called "special" and therefore a "dangerous" man run awry of science into the realm of blind faith. His story is like many others borne of a fact-obsessed age, stories we love and cling to and write songs and make art about because they speak to something essential — about the seen and unseen, the true and untrue, what is fact and what is belief and where we draw the line.

Ben Butler's recent sculptures, his "Cloud Morphologies," on view now at Crosstown Arts, work with the same metaphor of captured and busted clouds symbolizing the immaterial being made concrete. Butler captures his clouds by forming them out of hard, immobile ingredients like cement and graphite. Their forms are rounded and intestinal-looking, like contorted versions of cartoon cumuli. There is something very bodily and earth-bound about Butler's Cloud Morphology I, Cloud Morphology II, and Cloud Morphology III; they aspire to the heavens but exist squarely on earth.

This show marks a new direction for Butler, a professor of sculpture at Rhodes College, whose earlier works consist of finely wrought wooden forms that Butler built systemically. Butler started those pieces with a control (a piece of wood so-and-so-inches wide) and then threw in an X-factor (for example, expanding each wooden piece by .5 inches and rotating it 2 degrees

clockwise ...). He followed his own algorithms until they tapered off, became too large, or otherwise completed themselves. These earlier works are beautiful but restrained, sometimes to a fault. They are about a kind of clean information, made physical and trapped by its own growth.

The piece in "Cloud Morphology" that most follows the earlier strain in Butler's work — and the only wooden work in the show — is Scholars' Rock, a sculpture carved out of quarter-inch-thick slabs of wood and separated by small, lateral beams. The work grows upwards and outwards with a kind of hesitant logic, and the result does look academic, the shape emerging hesitantly like a mountain seen through fog.

In the other works in the show, we see more of Butler's hand, though haltingly. Directly next to Scholars' Rock is Cloud Morphology III, a small piece made of graphite and "ultracal gypsum cement." The black contours of the sculpture look like a blackened, knotted digestive tract. This is one of the best and most decisive works in the show. Here, instead of depending on the beauty, safety, and anonymity of algorithmically determined forms, Butler imagines the evolution.

Butler makes his clouds by building up blocks of foam until he has a roughly human-height, large block. He then carves into the foam with a hot knife, creating repetitive, rounded shapes until he has a bulbous (blob-ous?) form. He then deconstructs the layered foam and uses each individual layer as a mold in which to cast concrete. His concrete casts create an inverse record of his progress.

The show is sparse, and some of the cloud morphs are stronger than others. (Cloud Morphology II is not as lithe as I or III.) But Butler doesn't need a lot of work to communicate his message, which exists within his haphazard archaeology of the information age — particles of information, possible strains of the heavens that Butler makes material in concrete and wood.

Through November 8th

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