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Anatomy Lesson

Art Review: Steve Budington, “Homunculus”


Published November 17, 2010 at 10:40 a.m.

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Steve Budington’s show at the Firehouse Gallery begins with a titillating warning: “This exhibit explores the anatomical human form and contains imagery which may seem objectionable to some.”

Visitors expecting erotica will be left limp, however. While the exhibit does feature penises aplenty, along with a sperm sculpture and a nipple or two, “Homunculus” is exactly what its disclaimer states: anatomical (as opposed to sexy). Budington’s paintings and drawings deconstruct and distort the human form, which then gets swirled into surreal shapes. Techno prostheses such as earbuds and microphones are often attached to these disassembled bodies; in one work, tiny tents sprout like tumors on a female thigh. Some of Budington’s imagery verges on the grotesque.

But that’s not to say the exhibit lacks aesthetic pleasure.

Having earned an MFA from Yale in painting and printmaking, Budington clearly knows something about art history. And, in commentaries on individual pieces available to Firehouse visitors via cellphone, he references a couple of big guns in the Western canon, Leonardo da Vinci and Gustave Courbet, as well as the smaller-caliber surrealist René Magritte. By the very act of putting paint on canvas, Budington announces his respect for, and inclusion in, a formalist tradition spurned by many of his contemporaries — as well as many contemporary curators.

But Budington also challenges European art heroes. In one of 12 small paintings hung together as a grid, he presents a trio of penises dangling from some other, indeterminate body part. He likens this work to Courbet’s “Origin of the World,” which, as he delicately puts it, presents a full-frontal view of “a woman’s anatomy.” His ambition here, Budington declares, was “to make a painting that scared Courbet.”

Budington’s style can be satisfyingly minimalist, as in “Balance,” the most modestly scaled of about a half dozen stand-alone paintings displayed on the Church Street side of the gallery. This simple, off-centered composition of lips, teeth and, most of all, tongue on an otherwise all-white canvas looks like a less leering version of the Rolling Stones’ logo. Viewers who call up the artist’s narration will learn that those two wires connecting the tongue to a “glorified carpenter’s level” represent an apparatus that, in real life, enabled a brain-damaged woman to regain her sense of balance. But the painting can also be appreciated purely for what it is, sans explanation.

Mostly, Budington works in a baroque, sensuous manner, filling large surfaces with brightly colored ganglia, floating brain shapes and chunks of flesh that may call to mind Francis Bacon’s slabs of raw meat. In exuberant pieces such as “Boundaries,” Budington shows us he’s having a flamboyant love affair with paint.

A selection of drawings in the gallery’s rear room dials the thermostat down a few degrees. In a cellphone commentary accompanying this section of the show, Budington describes his mostly graphic-and-collage drawings as “the DNA for my work.” Indeed, images of ears, microphones and eyeballs sketched on some of these sheets do reappear, enlarged and elaborated, on some of the canvases in the front room.

It’s also interesting to hear Budington discuss the process of composing his drawings and oils. He speaks of a work as though it’s an active partner in its own creation. “I often feel the painting is telling me what to do,” the artist informs listeners in his reassuring, regular-guy voice. “Over time, it yields a clear idea of what the image is about.”

As its title indicates, this is a themed show in which the artist is riffing on imagined versions of the human form. More specifically, Budington is engaged here with “cortical homunculus,” or “a remapped image of the human form that scales body parts in relation to the degree of sensory input present in each area,” according to the wall text introducing the show. Ears, mouths, hands, eyeballs and, yes, genitals are thus predominant elements in many of these works.

Add to that the artist’s interest in the “posthuman.” As he observes in a 2008 interview on the University of Vermont’s website, some 21st-century Americans are being transformed into cyborgs by their dependence on “technological prostheses” such as laptops. From that perspective, it becomes possible to see the artist’s image of earbuds spurting from penises as his quintessential melding of the visual with the conceptual.

A painting prof at the University of Vermont in his early thirties, Budington qualifies as an emerging artist with an intriguing sensibility that’s postmodern as well as posthuman. It’ll be interesting to watch him “bud” in Burlington.