“Power and Panache:
The Paintings of LeslieAnn Butler”

an essay by Richard Speer

By turns exuberant and pensive, sophisticated and poignant, the paintings of Portland, Oregon-based artist LeslieAnn Butler encompass the complexities and paradoxes of human experience. With an intuitive grasp of the properties—and personality—of paint itself, she chronicles the intrigues and inner lives of a contemporary beau monde in psychologically revealing vignettes, which glitter with panache and joie de vivre, even as they harbor darker subtexts.

Butler has deployed her muscular, neo-Impressionist style in series that push the envelope in her quest to unearth the élan vital and hidden truths that inform her subjects’ material environments and spiritual journeys. Her deep love of and empathy with animals is evident in her vibrant Wild Things series, while Parties updates an ambiance of Jazz-Age savoir-faire in festive contemporary settings. Beach Girls is the artist’s ode to sun, strand, camaraderie, and the evanescence of youth, dazzlingly portrayed with flecks of color in sky and windblown hair, skin tones luminous and creamy, and a soul-warming saturation of directional light. Her luxuriant floral still lifes, Transformations, deal with beauty, wholeness, and inner growth. In gorgeous close-up, these calla lilies, roses, and poppies recall O’Keeffe’s intimate florals, except in a looser, more luscious style. They seduce the eye with their accents of metallic paint, their contours, crannies, and shadows, which impart allusive riches above and beyond their sumptuous literality.

In Pensées de Nuit (Night Thoughts), the painter takes a tactile, almost sculptorly approach, using her fingers as well as brushes to mold the figures’ faces, which are tight and focused, popping forward from more painterly backgrounds. The scenes are complemented by text adapted from her own journals and translated into French to impart a sense of mystery and ambiguity. There is an arch wit to many of the captions that counterbalances the seriousness of the scenes, creating a powerful dialectic that engages the viewer. This enigma comes across in titles such as Triste ou Sage? (Sad or Smart?) and in the expectant bemusement that colors the subjects’ expressions. Introspective and worldly, these are semblances that imply much but proffer little. These are multi-dimensional souls, seductive but self-possessed, who have lived and loved, lost and learned. They have earned the right to hold their cards close to the vest. In the signature Butler style, there is still whimsy in abundance, and romance, and the accoutrements of the bon vivant. And yet the wine glasses, fancy hats, and stolen glances from charming strangers are tempered by tragicomic realizations (“We can’t be together, because he likes cheap champagne.”) and gentle, enduring regrets (“When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a ballet dancer. My mother made me take piano lessons instead.”) With their implacable faces and beatific ennui, the figures recall the habitués of Modigliani and Matisse. Thematically they harken to William Blake, who reminded us that life is a duet between innocence and experience. In the savvy, serene faces that haunt Pensées de Nuit, LeslieAnn Butler sings both, in a voice that is technically assured, intellectually and spiritually nuanced, and exquisitely sensitive to the contours of life in all its beauty and pathos.

—A contributing critic at ARTnews, Art Ltd., and GLASS Quarterly, Richard Speer is the author of Matt Lamb: The Art of Success (John Wiley & Sons) and has penned reviews and features for Digital Photo Pro, Newsweek, Salon, and The Los Angeles Times.