After learning that the Coral Springs Museum of Art was hosting its third Clyde Butcher exhibition, I wondered what was left to say about the "Ansel Adams of the Everglades." After all, it was only eight months ago that ArtServe served up a retrospective of the photographer's four-decade career. And a little more than a year ago, the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale presented an ambitious exhibition pairing the work of Butcher with that of Adams.
But the Coral Springs Museum's new show makes a distinct contribution to the Butcher legacy. It's called "Cuba: The Natural Beauty," and it's the first exhibition to feature some of the photographs Butcher took during three trips he made to Cuba in 2002 and 2003.
Butcher's expeditions were at the invitation of Luis Gomez-Echeverri, who coordinates United Nations programs on the island, and Parke Wright III, a Naples businessman. As part of a worldwide U.N. initiative to promote mountain conservation, Gomez-Echeverri and Wright organized the Cuba-based Conference for the Sustainable Habitat of the Mountain, and Butcher, a fervent environmentalist, readily agreed to participate.
There are only two dozen silver gelatin photographs in the exhibition, and Butcher has limited each to an unusually small edition of only 15 hand-developed prints. (In other words, don't plan on getting a bargain on one.) The pictures are both a departure from and an extension of the photographer's well-known style. I was immediately struck by the shift in scale, from the large-scale works typically associated with Butcher to the scaled-down prints here. Just over half of them are 30 inches by 40 inches not tiny, by any means, but significantly smaller than his usual format while the remainder are only 16 inches by 20 inches.
This downsizing yields mixed results. The smaller images draw us in for closer inspection, creating a sense of intimacy that's not really possible with Butcher's monumental prints. Then again, there's something to be said for the grandeur of those huge photos, which emphasize, instead of intimacy, a sense of urgency. When we see one of Butcher's magnificent Everglades landscapes rendered larger than life, there's no doubt the photographer wants us to realize how much we stand to lose.
Butcher has previously ventured into the mountains of the American West given his affinity with Adams, how could he not? but he has a distinctly different take on the remote mountainous regions of Cuba. Maybe it's the uncertainty of being in unfamiliar territory, because some of the shots in this show have the feel of work by a stranger in a strange land. In the text panel to Magote #5, which is at the beginning of the exhibition, Butcher mentions that his wife, Nikki, says the picture makes her think of the setting for Jurassic Park, and she's right. The towering masses of cumulus clouds may be pure Clyde Butcher, but the lush, tropical landscape below, with vaguely ominous mountains on the horizon, could easily be Michael Crichton by way of Steven Spielberg. Butcher even lets us glimpse a couple of small buildings peeking through the jungle at the bottom of the image.
Around the corner, the small print Punta Mota has an even more alien ambience. The setting is a narrow, pebbly beach backed by a rocky, coarse-textured cliff dotted with some scrub. The long exposure renders the tide as a streaming blur, and the artist's trademark clouds have been all but banished to a tiny swath barely visible in the extreme lower left of the image. I can't imagine mistaking this for an American beach. The same is true of Coral Coast #2, which captures a great sprawl of coral dotted with some scraggly plants that seem more suggestive of the desert than of the coast.
Sometimes, a peculiar thing happens when Butcher homes in on a patch of foliage. Unlike similar studies in American locations as diverse as Florida, California, and Colorado, some of these Cuban shots border on bland. Instead of popping into sharp relief, the flora seems less differentiated, less vivid. And in the smaller format, the detail that distinguishes the American shots gets lost.
One glorious exception is Comandancia de la Plata #3 , a medium-sized image more or less diagonally bisected by the trunk of a tree in the foreground. The focus, however, is on a huge bromeliad perched low on the tree trunk. The whole scene is drenched in bright light, which gives the bromeliad an ethereal, translucent glow.
In two variations on a theme, both called Vista del Alto de Naranjo, Butcher shoots from a mountaintop looking out over the Sierra Maestra range, with the distant mountains framed at the sides and bottom by dense foliage. As he indicates in the text panel to one of the images, he had to wait for a break in the weather on a rainy day, which explains the unsettled-looking sky that contrasts with the clear, velvety texture of the mountains.
A few of the photographs are fairly dramatic departures for Butcher, who almost never includes humans or man-made structures in his work. Banao #1 marks the most radical it's a graveyard with elaborate headstones that resemble tiny chapels, shot at the request of Nikki Butcher. In Caballet de Casa, mountains form a backdrop for an expanse of farmland dotted with a few palm trees and populated by a horse, a small egret, and a pair of field workers.
There are no people visible in Magote Water Buffalo Ranch, an expansive image of a U.N. farm beneath a towering rock formation that recalls Wyoming's Devils Tower, although there are a few tiny buildings suggesting that humans aren't far away. (There are no water buffalo either.) It's an eerily open hillside landscape scattered with palm trees and lines of bushes and trees forming graceful loops, and the clouds above darken and turn threatening at either side of the shot. There's an edgy sense of mystery here, a feeling that something big is about to happen.
Butcher's most majestic photograph is one that is simultaneously familiar and alien. In terms of things like composition, lighting, and texture, Magote #3 is classic Butcher, as unmistakable as his famous Everglades work. But the image seems freshly charged, reenergized by the strangeness of its subject matter, which includes Cuba's Sierra de Vinales mountains jutting up in unexpected shapes, including one to the left that made me think of one of those giant Easter Island statues, toppled and overgrown with greenery.
I don't envy any curator faced with the challenge of incorporating other art into a space dominated by Butcher, but not surprisingly, the Coral Springs Museum's ever-resourceful Barbara K. O'Keefe found a striking solution. "Steckley: From the Ground Up" includes nine pieces of furniture and a fruit bowl handcrafted by Matt Steckley, and it's uniformly elegant stuff.
The Miami-based Steckley works primarily with Cuban mahogany but also with such exotic woods as wild tamarind and andiroba, and he even incorporates driftwood into a couple of pieces. He keeps his lines clean, simple, and mostly free of adornment in such items as a dining table with legs that resemble giant starfish and various chairs and small side tables. And his breathtaking Arches Writing Desk melds a plain rectangular slab of Cuban mahogany with two slender arches that form the legs and define a crescent holding two small drawers on the top surface. I'm convinced I could create literature on that desk.
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