For new exhibit 'Black Est.,' which opens at Streetlight Guild on Thursday, the painter learned that he can't change the way his brain is wired

When David Butler started to consider an approach for a new exhibit, he was determined to keep the work fun, tapping into the same spirit that drove “50 Pieces of Black Gold,” a 2017 collaborative show with fellow artist Eric Jefferson.

“With that one, I wasn’t trying to think about what was going to sell in a gallery space. I was just thinking about what would be fun to see up on a wall,” said Butler in an early February interview at Streetlight Guild, which will host the artist’s new exhibit, “Black Est.,” beginning on Thursday, Feb. 13. “When making art, you’re trying to be a couple things. You’re trying to be poignant and of the times, and then at other times you’re trying to make stuff that feels good. And it’s a balance, because the stuff that feels good isn’t always going to put food on the table.”

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This idea has long been a struggle for Butler, who is prone to crafting pieces that force viewers to engage larger societal issues. For one installation, the artist created 175 letter-sized shooting range targets, each representing a black man or woman shot and killed by police, which meant studying 175 autopsy reports and then manipulating each paper target to display wounds matching the person it was meant to portray. And this approach can exact a heavy toll, both personally and in terms of the larger societal conversation required.

“In the past, [my work]’s been really heavy, and I’m trying to get away from the idea that all black issues have to do with some form of trauma, or we have to be dying in our art to be respected,” Butler said. “You even see it in the Oscars this past weekend with ‘Harriet.’ It doesn’t even have to be accurate; it just has to be about [pain] to get nominated. Then something like ‘Dolemite [Is My Name]’ gets completely ignored, where it’s about innovation, entrepreneurship … and the joy of cinema, which is such a positive message, not just to black people but to people in general: ‘Go out and make shit and [ignore] the people who tell you that you’re chasing a dream that’s never going to come to fruition. Just do what you do and be happy about it.’

“I don’t think we celebrate that enough with black artists. We always have to be pushing to the needle for whiteness to have a space to come to Jesus.”

For “Black Est.,” Butler was initially guided by a simple principle: Would the image make his thumb stop while scrolling through social media? In turn, there’s a meme-like quality to the smaller printed images that dot the walls of Streetlight Guild, glossy black-on-black depictions of figures such as Redd Foxx and the black Doctor Manhattan from “Watchmen.”

But the crux of the exhibit consists of a dozen-odd paintings, many of which Butler created using glue, glitter and black sand, an experimental process that forced him to work quickly and with materials he considered... less than ideal.

“This whole show is really just me experimenting, because I hate sand. I hate glitter,” said Butler, adding that he’s still cleaning sand out of his car and his carpet at home. “But I chose glitter and sand because I wanted to work with something I hated. I thought about working with material that I myself did not understand and would judge openly, almost as a metaphor for how people judge blackness.”

The approach also forced him to confront his perfectionist tendencies, since the sand couldn’t be wielded with the same precision as his trusted paints, flaking off at the slightest touch or even falling prey to gravity over time. “There’s a humbling aspect to it,” Butler said, “because you can’t control what happens.”

Employing this technique, the artist crafted portraits of iconic black figures who elicit sometimes complicated reactions among some segments of the population, including Colin Kaepernick and Michelle Obama.

The pieces are even positioned in the gallery in a manner where they engage in conversation with one another. Witness the portraits of black trans women Laverne Cox and Marsha P. Johnson hung side by side on the gallery's east wall. Cox, painted in brighter shades of gray, appears to leap from the wall, while Johnson practically recedes from view, her stark black visage camouflaged against the black backdrop. “So there are two trans activists, one of whom we know (Cox), so we’re seeing her more straightforward,” Butler said. “Then she’s next to this literal hidden figure, this [overlooked] icon of trans activism.”

Of course, these kinds of connections, which exist throughout “Black Est.,” are in some way removed from Butler’s initial concept of creating something fun, which the artist chalked up to an inability to “escape my brain.”

“Me and my wife had this conversation, and she was like, ‘Why don’t you slow down and go with the portrait thing?’” said Butler, who has long enjoyed drawing faces, even working for years as a caricature artist. “And I’ll be like, ‘Maybe you’re right. I need to slow it down and do that.' And then it’s like, ‘All right, these are all people from the diaspora from the 1920s all the way until 2004, and they’ll all be black women.’ And she’ll be like, ‘That’s not what I meant.’

"But I can’t just do that. There has to be a narrative or a story attached to it. That’s how I’m wired. I like the stories behind the faces I’m painting. I’m a storyteller at heart.”