Arts & Culture » Visual Art

The Curious Corinna Button

Artist debuts solo show at Brumfield's Gallery


As anyone who has traveled the world will tell you, everything is bigger in America--the food, the houses, even the country itself sprawls across an entire continent like it just finished its third trip through a buffet line.

For artist Corinna Button--whose new solo exhibit opens at Brumfield's Gallery Saturday, May 4--even the size of her paintings grew when she moved to America from the United Kingdom in 2010.

"Since I've been in Chicago, I've been working on these giant pieces," Button said. "That was a new experience for me because I've never had such a large studio. Being in Chicago and getting this large studio in a warehouse building really allowed me to explore."

Before she snagged her studio, Button's work had focused more on printmaking, specifically a technique called collagraphy, used to create complexly layered prints with textures like weathered stone.

But while showing her work at Chicago's Zhou B. Art Center in March 2012, Button realized the cavernous space dwarfed her prints.

"I brought my largest prints, but they didn't look very large in that space," Button said. "So I knew to make the show look good in that space, I had to make the show much bigger."

The gallery owner suggested physically larger work and Button ran with it, producing her Idols series of haunting female portraits, some of which reach eight feet in height.

"The whole idea of the Idol came about when I saw an image on the front of a fashion magazine in the UK during London Fashion Week," Button said. "She presented an idea of a superhuman, enchanted figure that seems to appear in the media a lot. I wanted to do something with that."

The piece "Idol," a tentpole of the collection, depicts a gracefully long-necked woman wearing a wing-like crownpiece with a cracked texture like a water-damaged wall. Several pieces in the series examine different angles of a figure named Grace, portrayed in grays and blues like an animated nightmare sequence. There are clear influences in Button's work of German expressionists like Max Beckmann, or even Austrian artist Gustav Klimt.

Button said that at the time she created the Idols series, she was looking at a great deal of sculpture heads in museums and found that they were generally displayed behind glass cases on pedestals.

"I liked the idea that they were isolated, that you couldn't touch them," she said.

The Idols series certainly seems untouchable, as if they exist behind a fog of memory. Though Button said she found inspiration in images from pop culture, her execution feels much more decayed--like a series of female Dorian Grays.

Button took inspiration for the project, and her work as a whole, from the T.S. Eliot poem "The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."

"There will be time, there will be time / To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet," the poem reads.

"I feel like every day you think of a way you want to present yourself, so you 'prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet,' to me that seems a very real thing," Button said. "There's often stuff going on beneath the surface."

But one of the features that best imparts the emotional undercurrents of the series are the textural printmaking elements. The pieces maintain the same weathered stone or water-damaged texture, making the Idols appear ghostly--another inspiration Button took from her Chicago studio.

"It's this stony building and there's loads of residue and brick and worn out paint, and I started to see faces in it," said Button. "I like that sense of history. That's why I really like to layer my work, to give it that sense of history."

In many cases, those layers are an effect Button achieves not by adding paint, but by taking it away--a process she demonstrates in several videos on YouTube.

"The way I work is very much about excavating, even my process, scraping away at the surface to reveal what's beneath," she said.

Some of the Idols were created out of the scraps left from Button's printmaking process.

"The thing about collagraph is that it really embosses the paper and leaves some interesting texture," she said. "I didn't want to get rid of all these proofs, so I started to print over them."

The Idols that Button printed over the proofs brought a whole new dimension to her work, something that caught the eye of Jane Brumfield, owner of Brumfield's Gallery, formerly the Basement Gallery.

"The subject matter appeals to me," said Brumfield. "But above that, I just think the quality of her surface and the combination of the techniques actually creates something that is quite unique and very, very beautiful."

Brumfield first met the artist when they were both living in England. She has been exhibiting Button's printmaking work for years.

"This will be the first time I've had the opportunity to show her larger works, which includes her original paintings," said Brumfield. "And the only reason I'm able to do that is because she's moved here over the pond for a little while."

Brumfield said she hasn't had much of an opportunity to show large works by anyone due to space constraints. But since Brumfield relocated her gallery to Hyde Park from its former space in the basement of the Idanha Building, there is more room to grow.

How very American.