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Stylisation; the heart of making.

I’m going to start this post by sharing a little story from my second year at art college. This was a period when I was trying to be a stone carver. I tried, and tried, and all I ended up with most of the time was the same stone, but smaller. It was frustrating for me, and it must have been even more frustrating for my lecturers. I enjoyed the process and I was pretty stoked to be actually carving real stone.

I read everything I could on stone carving. I bought manuals online. I talked to carvers. I couldn’t work out why I was getting nowhere- I’d read the advice: shape it with the point, taking off stone by carving a grid with the point, then knocking off the lumpy bits, shape it further with the claw, smooth it out with the flat chisel (though I rarely got to that last bit.). There was nothing wrong with my technique, or the process I was using. At least according to the books.

Then, something happened. I’d actually brought a huge lump of limestone home with me to experiment on. I still hadn’t produced anything more than a mass of rough stone with it though. But this weekend a friend from town had come over. He wasn’t an artist- he’d done half a foundation year a few year or so ago, and he drew a bit, but he didn’t consider himself a carver or anything like that. He produced this:

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No, it’s not a masterpiece, but it’s a very nicely executed little relief carving for somebody with no training. So why had he been able to produce that, whereas all I managed to do was ruin good stone?

The answer is simple: he stylised his motif. Rather than trying to accurately copy a representational motif, he reduced his design to a few lines and carved away the waste.

For a long time, I resisted stylising my work. I wanted to respond to a real, three dimensional motif in an accurate way. But the truth is that all art is stylised to some degree. David Hockney talks about this process in his simple, unaffected and profound way. Early in his career, he rapidly learnt a simple truth: direct, one-to-one realism is not possible. Not actually physically possible.

Gombrich analyses this process wonderfully in ‘art & illusion’. He talks about a process, fundamental to traditional representational art, where a simple ‘schema’ is imposed, and then corrected progressively to establish the truth of the motif. There are some really interesting bits in this: for example, the tale of a Chinese artist who ended up in Britain who ended up producing images of England that looked for all the world like pictures of china. There’s also an interesting bit about Daumier, and about the first European cartoonists. They both had different approaches to stylisation: Daumier just ran his hand loosely around a collection of forms that he saw in the object, much as Kimon Nicolaides advised his students to do over a hundred years later. The early cartoonists took simple, symbolic forms much like children all over the world do. They all developed their own approaches to stylisation, but they all stylised their work to some degree. Everybody does.

This even applies to such a consummate visual artist as Michelangelo. On first glance, his statues look like the model of direct representational accuracy. Once you’ve looked at them for a long time though, you realise that they are in fact highly stylised. His mature, uninhibited work actually has this in common with Chinese scrolls. Their stylisation is what I’ll tentatively called ‘natural stylisation’. This would seem to be an oxymoron, but in fact a mature artist reaches a point where stylisation is as natural as breathing or walking. I often wonder what would happen if a child simply developed the symbolgical art that most children use. The answer, I think, is that the symbolic language would become more and more sophisticated. But where does that leave observation? That answer is up to the artist, and it is reached by a physical, sensual process that can take years or even decades, and becomes richer with age. The means by which an artist refers to something outside of art constantly develops is complex, and an account of it would take vastly more than just an article on wordpress, and in the end the answer is in the artist’s work anyway.

This is true also of much less exalted work. People beginning to draw, as Betty Edwards notes in ‘drawing on the right hand side of the brain’, have to learn to conceive their work in terms of shapes, edges, and tones. Ruskin touches on this too a little; he talks about the process where an artist draws a leaf, then draws another leaf that will match or contradict its shape. In the hand and eye of a mature artist, the dance of their hand across the paper can be something to behold. In the beginner, it can be clumsy and slow, but it is always there.

When we’re talking about two dimensions, the implications of stylisation are more obvious: line is quite obviously a stylistic abstraction. It’s often been said that ‘there are no lines in nature’. But the truth is that tone (‘shading) is an abstraction too- the world doesn’t actually look like that. One of the important questions in developing a mature style is to learn to ape the tones of a natural object within the limitations oft the materials that you are using.

Going on to sculpture, it’s often said that the volumes of sculpture are real: the lump and the hole. The truth though, is that stylisation is even more important in sculpture. The volumes created in representational stone sculpture, are not literal. They are abstractions, and they are metaphors, in the same way that Walt Whitman used to say that poetic language is metaphorical: we are not being asked to believe that the artist is creating a three dimensional copy. That would not be possible, except possibly using some sort of computerised process. Even then, the computer algorithm would not be creating the same structures as the original object; we are being presented with a descriptive metaphor for the real object, and that is conceptually much more interesting. This is where humans have the edge on machines; they have the capacity to use language and visual language in an emotive, poetic way. What we have here is a willing suspension of disbelief that allows us to enter into the philosophical, poetic and conceptual world of the artist.

Then there’s the textile arts; one of the beauties of making things out of fabric is that a lot of the mark making is done for you, in the choice of fabric. But in designing a pattern to make with them, you have to call on great stylistic strength.

If this is true of representation, it’s even more true of abstraction. Abstraction is essentially pure stylisation, without any sort of motif, assuming that we are talking about ‘metalingual abstraction’, where the piece is just about the visual language that the artist is using. In ‘nonvisual equivalents’, where the painting is a metaphor for something nonvisual, like a piece of music, or a poem, stylisation is again the means by which the comparison is made. In ‘representational reductions’, where a real motif is made more and more ‘abstract’, stylisation is the vehicle whereby the motif is reduced to abstraction.

Back to my friend and my lump of stone: His results were better, and my results improved greatly in the months following, not because he learned how to see, but because his method of translating an imagined object into real form was not more sophisticated, but more appropriate to the task he was undertaking. The ways that we translate imagined, abstract or representation motifs are many, but there is a certain commonality to them: when Alan Davie started making random, instinctive marks, he found that he was repeating symbols and marks found in many cultures all over the world. stylisation is much more than making things simpler so that we can draw them. It is learning to see and to conceive, whether what we are conceiving is a real motif or a splash of paint. Stylisation is the heart of making, and it’s also fundamental to what it means to be a human being making art.

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The naughty step #2: Pretentious vocabulary

You know what? I try not to use the word ‘pretentious’, as it usually simply means ‘the kind of art being described is just not the kind that the user of the word is used to’. It’s also incredibly resentful. The kind of person who uses this word is also likely to refer to ‘the artworld’ and ‘modern art’. But there are things that even I find pretentious, and one of them is the kind of cruel and unusual vocabulary that one commonly finds in gallery bumpf and art business magazines.

It’s time to talk about a very real problem in our business. No names, no pack drill, of course. But reading trade magazines should be a pleasure for anyone interested in the trade. For every other trade, it is. But how can anybody be interested in a magazine that uses words like ‘liminal’ and ‘epistemological’?

Being in the virtually unique position, at least where I went, of actually having gone through the reading list at art college, I do actually know what most of these words mean. That isn’t the problem. The problem is that quite often, when one seeks an explanation of what one sees in an art gallery, one is confronted with an indigestble word porridge that contains words like ‘ontological’ and ‘post-barthesian’, that only confuses the issue.

Some of this is Derrida’s fault. For a long time, students at art colleges were encouraged to read Derrida rather than do any actual work, and said students had to cope with words that were longer than their arms. But it’s not long words, per se, that I’m objecting to. It’s stupid words. When a writer is unable to use a simple paraphrase- a simple combination of more commonly understood words, to say what they mean, this is the sign of a weak writer.

Most of this verbal diarrhea consists of misprescisions anyway; ‘exegesis’, for example, does not mean ‘explanation’. It refers to a particular kind of explanation. Explanation is in fact a longer word, but it is a more common and much more easily understood one. Another misprecision would be ‘hermeneutic’, to mean ‘interpretive’. See what I mean?

I mean, I’m at risk of overplaying my hand here, and in particular I don’t wish to put anybody off from using poetic, powerful vocabulary. ‘Lugubrious’ is a wonderful word. Poetry quite often uses words like ‘diaphanous’ for textural and dramatic effect. But when you’re trying to communicate a simple perception of a piece of art, I think you should reach first for words that John Berger would have used; easily understood, sharp, and to the point.

And another thing; The writing of art criticism consists of more than simply rewriting press releases. Again, no names, no pack drill. Particularly as most of the actual work is probably being done by hapless, starving interns, towards whom I bear no ill will; there but for the grace of God and all that. But surely to god, as a profession, we are capable of more than just vomiting  vocabulary when called upon to describe works of art. It’s unfair, in some ways, to compare every jobbing critic to Ruskin or to John Berger- but my god how most of us could profit by his example!

Home gym hell #2; A useful stretch

“Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven”

Before we start, none of this should be construed as medical advice or real, paid, exercise instruction. It’s simply something I’ve found useful and want to share. This stretch isn’t going to hurt you though- quite the contrary.

Today I want to share with you a little gem of an exercise, a stretch I found reading ‘the art of shen ku’- a book packed with exercises and tips on the art of travel. It is in some ways a brainless book, as a lot of the ‘medicinal’ advice is dubious at best, but the section on the martial arts contains a lot of really good stuff.

This particular stretch is known in the book as ‘the kickboxer’s rest’. Apart from the art of shenk ku, I’ve also seen it in videos of American karateka (Some of the best karateka in the world right now are American citizens, incidentally.). It stretches quite a lot of the muscular structure of the thigh. I now do it as an alternative, or as an addition, to the standard straddle-leg stretch that everybody does in my karate class and you probably remember from secondary school. In my opinion, it’s a better stretch- the straddle leg seated stretch seems to stretch more of my calves these days, but that’s probably because I’m ageing disgracefully and thanks to a long period of not doing much exercise when I was in art college, my calves have suffered greatly in flexibility. It’s considered ‘a bit wierd’ by my karate club and I got raised eyebrows from my wonderful instructor, but it’s really, really nice to do this stretch after a grading with the lactic acid slowly percolating out of your bloodstream and your lungs slowly returning to normal, that I can vouch for.

This stretch, however, certainly does the calves, but you also feel a pretty intense stretch in your hamstrings. So without further ado, this is how to do it;

Find a wall. This shouldn’t be difficult- most people have access to a wall. I’m the exception, of course as all of my walls are covered in old kitchen cupboards stuffed with machinery, new kitchen cupboards stuffed with food and pans and just random old shit. So I do it sat against my bed.

Second, lie on a mat next to the wall on top of a rug. My sheepksin is ideal for this purpose, but really anything slightly fuzzy would do- an old piece of matting. It wants to be soft but firm, and its purpose is to protect your back. If you’re a lot tougher than me, you could do it on asphalt, but age has forced me to take care of my back a little more, and if you’re a teenager, I urge you to do this before back problems become any kind of issue.

Next, spread your legs apart. Now, leave them there. Don’t force your legs apart- the distance apart should be one that induces a comfortable stretch. This, incidentally, is a COMFORTABLE STRETCH, not a competition to see how far you can get your legs apart. If at all unsure, go for less rather than more. As you do this exercise more and more, you will learn what distance works for you. Mean ol’ mister Gravity, in the words of Mark Rippetoe, is your friend here. Your legs will slowly spread wider and wider apart.

Just let it happen- if you have a short attention span, fiddle with your phone and set the timer for 5 minutes. It’s best to support your head with arms folded behind your back if you possibly can. If you’re older and wiser, put the radio on and set the timer. If you’re at zen fucking monk level of patience, simply breathe slowly, count your breaths up to ten, and then back again. You can also mix and match these different levels of distracting yourself while you lie with your legs apart, and slowly learn patience and maybe become one with the cosmos or whatever the shit it is that zen monks do. I don’t care- the point is to leave your legs there for about 5 minutes and let gravity stretch them.

When 5 minutes is up, your legs will be pretty tense, but they’ll also have been thoroughly stretched and if you gradually extend those five minutes, you will find the tension fading slowly, before mean ol’ mr. Gravity puts the tension back on. Don’t jerk your legs out of position- gradually bend them and return them to upright with your arms. Then get up, and you’re done.

The great thing about this exercise is that can be a useful variant of the state known intimately to crossfitters and military folk of collapsing in a muddy heap and breathing for dear life- but it will actually stretch your legs at the same time! The best time to do it is, therefore, is after a cool down and before a shower. I tend to do it after a day’s work before a long, hot bath, and this also works great. In any case, try it out for yourself and let the magic happen. It’s a goodie.

Gentleman’s dub club at the tramshed

I went to cardiff on Friday to see Gentleman’s dub club, supported by Aleighcia Scott and the solid foundation, and let me tell you it was excellent.

Aleighcia Scott and the solid foundation provided the perfect warmup. Not that I wouldn’t go out just to see them. The way Scott interacts with the audience is really warm and engaging, and everybody started singing along- always a good sign. She clearly has a deep familiarity with old school reggae. The solid foundation pretty much do exactly what it says on the tin- they provide a musically sound, technically rock-solid accompaniment with the occasional piece of technical bravado that really set off Scott’s voice. Her voice, meanwhile, is something quite other. It’s powerful but rich at the same time, and I think I could have listened to her all night.

Then Gentleman’s dub club came on, and the sheer energy and pace they created, right from the start until the end, on stage was truly something to behold. The lead singer in particular seemed to be pogo-ing for pretty much the entire night.

They stick, on the whole, to fairly traditional reggae subject matter, with songs like ‘music is the girl I love’, but what they do with that subject matter is original- and breathtaking. The sheer speed of the music and the way they sustain that for the entire set is impressive. It’s the sort of music where you don’t quite realise how difficult it is to do though, because you’re caught up in the experience. They produce a unique blend of fast-paced, exciting reggae that is truly an immersive experience- by the end of the night, you genuinely don’t want it to end. They’re not stingy with the number and variety of songs either. We even got quite a few encores. This is the sort of music that really does reward you for going to see it live- you’ll listen to the albums, too, but you really have to go to one of their gigs for the full experience. There was a tremendous amount of energy in the crowd. The whole place turned into a seething, undulating mass of humanity that seemed to have its own intrinsic personality. It’s not every band that can do this- it’s given to a rare few to be able to energise the audience to this extent.

The people responsible for the lighting and the sound effects deserve a lot of praise too. The use of contrasting colours in the lights, and the technically perfect sound production meant that nothing got in between the audience and the music. The whole effect was practically hypnotic.

It helps that the tramshed is such a lovely venue, of course. It’s about the right size for this kind of gig, it has all the elements of a really good venue in place, and the bar, where you can buy red stripe beer, is well tended. They even have a bar next to the main venue called ‘the waiting room’, where you can get pies and a variety of beers, and practically any kind of alcohol you could possibly want.

A craft stall in Wales

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A welsh landscape, by yours truly

I was listening to the usually excellent ‘front row’ on radio 4 this week when I heard a troubling phrase. I won’t name the person concerned, as they’re part of a wider problem and I have no wish to get into the question of attacking people’s reputations on the internet, but I ask you to consider the assumptions behind this phrase: “The kind of paintings that might sell in a craft stall in Wales, or something”.

Now, I’m aware this is an expression of a common enough prejudice, and it doesn’t by any means apply only to Art. To some, anything outside the capital is inherently second rate, despite constant attempts to counteract the notion. To such people, it’s disgusting enough that I don’t live in London, let alone have no house in the home counties. Not only that, but the house I live in isn’t even a second home. I actually live here. 12 months of the year. And that’s not on.

With that in mind, I have to declare that yes, I do know the sort of thing she’s referring to. There have been times when I’ve shared the speaker’s dismay with this kind of work. We all know what this phrase means. The sort of thing that could have been done any time in the past century, or even the one before. I don’t have an axe to grind: the kind of art I’m mainly interested in is the kind that gets called ‘contemporary’ a lot these days (leaving the next generation of artists with the tricky task of choosing a moniker that sounds more recent than contemporary’), but I do think that any kind of art, even or perhaps especially abstract painting, has to have a basis in observation. If you’re at all unsure that it applies, I refer you to the writings of Paul Klee. Even abstract expressionism uses particular kinds of mark making and particular kinds of colours that make the piece instantly identifiable as belonging to a particular tradition.

No, what I’m complaining about is what I call ‘image snobbery’. The idea that certain kinds of image should be privileged above others and enjoy a greater degree of cultural prestige. To some extent this is inevitable: look at the traditional hierarchy of painting, with history painting at the top and still life at the bottom, for example. Some kind of system of privilege seems to be an inherent part of the particular kind of cultural activity that we call art. But I think we get into hot water when we begin to talk in pejorative terms about the kind of paintings that get made into beermats and calendars. It only encourages the idea that the original painting is empowered with some kind of mystical aura that only somebody sufficiently trained can understand. I mean, I’m at risk of overplaying my hand here; some of this stuff you have to see ‘in the flesh’ before you realise quite how wonderful it really is. There’s a case to be made that familiarity breeds contempt. The collection of impressionist paintings at the museum in Cardiff, for example, is required viewing.

But as contemporary artists and writers, aren’t we supposed to be against cultural privilege though? Aren’t we culturally richer if our views of art encompass a wider idea of art than just the kind of thing that gets used as a hedge against inflation? Another aspect of what I’m complaining about is the division of people who are interested in art into the categories of ‘consumers’ or ‘appreciators’ and image makers. The fact is that nearly everybody who engages in art is an ‘image maker’ to some degree. The YBAs in particular used to talk about making powerful images and objects as the core of their practices.

What I’m whining about, in particular is the kind of image snobbery that applies a pejorative to, in particular, landscape painting. I have a neighbour, for example, who produces the most exquisite landscapes, but you could never call her work old fashioned or passé. If you want a loftier example, I could call upon Kyffin Williams, or at the risk of dredging up the past, David Bomberg. People like landscape. A little research indicates that images of landscape are among the best selling items of art on the internet. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that; I’m a great advocate of giving people what they want. I think we should bear in mind what Simon Schama said about Van Gogh when he said that the great man ‘wasn’t against art as decoration. He just had high expectations of what he wanted decoration to do’. Apologies if I’ve misquoted, but you get the gist.

What we have here is a kind of cultural stratification. Some people are producing Art, and some people are producing craft. Well, that’s fine. You pays your money and takes your choice, although if you look into the matter you might come to question what your choice actually involves. There’s a certain amount of stratification that is inevitable. To illustrate, I’ll mention a joke that I sometimes tell that has to do with the room that Carmarthen Artists’ Network meet in. Another group called the ‘happy crafters’ sometimes uses the space as well. I like to say that they are the ‘happy crafters’ and we are the ‘miserable contemporary fine artists’.

And here we get to the core of the problem. I do think there’s a certain amount of professional jealousy involved in all this. Contemporary fine artists see people like the wonderful ladies of ‘cloth, paper scissors’ actually making a living from their art/craft/whatever you want to call it, and seethe with pent-up frustration at the fact that it’s very difficult to make money out of the kind of stuff that they do. There’s a certain element of performance in all this too; we play up to the image that the wider world has of artists.

While I’m here, incidentally, I want to take a pot shot at the issue of funding for art education in schools. This is a related issue, largely because our early art education plays a role in determining the kind of art we like as adults. It seems to me that the only people who are judged worthy of being taught to draw these days are people in private education. There’s a feeling that ‘Art is for special people like us. Ordinary people like you have to learn to add’. This can only be reinforced by the policy of not funding art education, and I confidently predict that as a result, the quality of art produced will begin to suffer.

To get back to the point, it comes to something when we feel that we have to apologise for actually drawing and painting. I like a bit of far-out performance art as much as the next effete wastrel, but I think we are culturally richer if we have different, competing ideas of what art is. Not only that, I think if we get to the point where we despise the things that most people have on their walls, and the people who produce them, then we have become elitist- the very thing that we’re supposed to be working against.

Steeleye span at the lyric

I’ve long been familiar with steeleye span from my father’s record collection. For those that aren’t, they’re a classic folk rock band formed in 1969. Even if you don’t know the band’s name, you’re probably familiar with ‘all around my hat’. I’ve spent many a happy evening listening to their back catalogue, and when the chance came to see them in Carmarthen, I jumped at it.

I wasn’t disappointed. If anything, they’re even better live. These are people for the most part, after all, who’ve been doing this all their lives. There’s a definite dark edge to their brand of folk. They play real old folk songs with murders, witchcraft and blood sports in them. There was a fair amount of new material on show, or at least songs of theirs that I haven’t heard before. I think they got the balance about right though- people coming to hear their favourite old songs won’t be disappointed, and the band remains a living, creative entity and not a fossil. Folk doesn’t have to mean old fashioned, as steeleye span have proved for their entire career.

The central showpiece remains Maddy Prior’s voice. For those that aren’t familiar with it, it’s powerful and evocative, something that I think I’m justified in calling one of the highlights of English folk. I think her voice might even have improved over the years- there’s a gravelly, dark menace to it now that has grown and matured into a real show-stopper. If you possibly can, incidentally, it’s well worth getting a copy of her ‘king Arthur’ album.

That’s not to say that the instrumentation wasn’t brilliant too. It’s a rich, multi-layered sound that easily bears listening to in purely instrumental numbers. The fiddle player, who must be a recent addition, in particular was a delight- how she managed to come in at all the right times live like that I will never know. She uses a mix of acoustic and electric violin to good effect. The bass player was quite something too, and at one point he gave a spectacular solo.

The gig was well attended. I’m pretty sure the house was full, and justifiably so- there was a real energy to the performance from beginning to end. We even had a couple of encores, to start with there was a quiet, soulful vocal performance, and then they came back on stage and did ‘all around my hat’, and we even got to join in. This was a couple of hours of music well worth paying for. I’m now going to try and acquire ‘dodgy bastards’, their album of 2016.

Perryn Butler and Peter Rossiter at King Street Gallery

There’s a show of some rather good sculpture and painting on in the chate room at king street gallery at the moment. There’s a rare variety and a cutting, intellectual edge to it that invites closer inspection. The two artists selected work extremely well together- Peter Rossiter, an intellectual painter capable of working in a variety of different painterly idioms who puts his cavasses together with assurance and a certain panache, and Perryn Butler, a sculptor with an eye for what Clive Bell would have called ‘significant form'(The idea that appreciation of art derives from expressive formalist qualities that are not necessarily representational in nature) and a deep, thoughtful connection to her materials.

The biggest pieces in the room, naturally, are what strike you first. There are three great big stone sculptures in the middle of the floor, an unpretentious but arresting arrangement. But for great big pieces of stone, they have an impressive and multiplicitous sense of how formal values can be manipulated to create not only drama, but also deep interest and visual wit. Some of it is very clever indeed- the row of black and white blocks in ‘Aberystwyth’, for instance creates a visual rhythm that draws you into the piece. These are also sculptures that truly demand to be appreciated in the round- each view is different, and no view ever seems to predominate in the usual way.

The documentation of the show tells how Butler creates her sculptures in a way that is somewhat akin to what you might call an automatic process (a surrealist concept where seemingly random or unconscious movements of the hand give rise to a form in an organic way). She either ‘sees the form in the block’, or allows the form to grow out of the subtractive process of carving a stone. This probably originates in her deep respect for his materials. Her slate pictures on the far wall are created in an awesomely authentic way, each part crafted carefully from local materials. As a result, there’s a definitely local and south-west-Welsh flavour to the work, which fuses power and taste. Elsewhere, there’s an almost cubist sense of stylisation, as in her ‘Aphrodite’. There’s a hard-boiled visual fluency here that strikes you more the longer you look at these things.

This is all work that stands definetly in the main line of western stylistic thought, the ‘conveyor belt’ that leads from impressionism, through cubism, to the present day. Butler’s sculptures definetly have something of the Brancusi in them. The risk with making this kind of formalist work is that the forms won’t be interesting enough to add anything new, but both artists pull off the trick. Peter Rossiter’s painting is incredibly cerebral- the visual conceit of ‘one’, for instance, looks like an update of Malevich, but with a richer painterly vocabulary. His monochrome work in particular invites long and careful contemplation- the seascape is muich more than just a painting of the beach. There’s a metalingual use of painterly method that nevertheless packs a powerful aesthetic punch. ‘Air filter’ is wittier, but still carries on the almost lingual use of paint in Rossiter’s work. The heart of his painting, I suppose, is the interplay between figure and ground. Each stroke seems carefully considered, and these are paintings of great intensity.

And when he uses colour, the results can be intriguing too. In ‘through adversity’, for instance, Rossiter actually seems to create another layer to the painting, so there is ground, figure, and a third, transparent layer created by rows of orange spots. The simple physical fact of the colour choices is right on too.

I think what both artists share is a certain instability of style, where the work hovers inbetween standard artistic tropes. In a good way. There’s a sense of shifting aesthetic and conceptual allegiances that derives from a certain willingness to allude to various ‘frameworks’ without fully entering into any of them, and also maintaining the visual integrity of the exhibition. Everything feels as if it should be here. This is challenging, thoroughbred, modernist painting and sculpture and I highly recommend you go to see it.

Perryn Butler and Peter Rossiter are showing at King Street Gallery until september 12.