David Butler tackles the other end of the racial spectrum in stunning ‘Whiteland’

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
David Butler (left) and Lance Johnson photographed at the Vanderelli Room

In 2015, artist David Butler helped curate a group exhibition at the Elijah Pierce Gallery dubbed “Forceful Perceptions,” which centered itself on the violence enacted on the Black community and included Butler’s painting of Trayvon Martin, who was shot and killed by George Zimmerman in 2012 at age 17.

“‘Forceful’ was all about us talking about violence and the things happening to Black people,” Butler said. “It’s number one purpose was to talk about the violence against the Black body, putting it on display, so that it was front and center.”

For “Whiteland,” which opens at the Vanderelli Room on Friday, July 2, Butler wanted to explore similar issues of race, but without again centering Black pain, or being forced to educate a white audience on the Black experience in navigating tragedy. “I didn’t want someone coming in just because someone had died two months before the show,” said Butler, who solicited contributions for 'Whiteland' from artists who previously displayed in “Forceful Perceptions,” along with a few new faces. As of press time, Butler said he expected at least eight or nine artists to show work, including Lisa McLymont, Lance Johnson and April Sunami, among others.

In conceiving the show, Butler decided he wanted to explore the concept of whiteness, as well as how that idea plays into the larger societal contract and the continued repression of communities of color.

“If we want to get into the underbelly of the real issue, it’s whiteness,” he said. “The issue is white people not wanting to come to the grips with the fact that — whether you’re rich or poor, well-to-do or rural Appalachian, or you just got here from Europe or Canada — because of the color of your skin, you have benefited from the system that has been created. And if you buy into that on any level, it becomes a problem for people who look like me.”

This idea of the white populace not wanting to examine its own role in preserving systemic racism is one that is currently playing out in the conversation around critical race theory, an academic framework created four decades ago by legal scholars to explore how racism is embedded in America’s laws and institutions that has recently become the target of an intense right-wing disinformation campaign. (No, they’re not teaching critical race theory in your kid’s public school.)

Butler started brainstorming ideas for the show by writing out a list of things that angered him, including the reality that Black people continue to be shot and killed by the police, as well as the political personalities who are continually granted a media platform to sell white supremacist talking points to a national audience.

“And I started asking, ‘How can I talk about how all of these people still exist, and they look just like you?’” Butler said.

Going in, Butler said he knew he didn’t want to paint portraits of individuals like Jason Meade, the sheriff’s deputy who shot and killed Casey Goodson, or Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown. So instead he started to collect photos of these types, largely grouped into three categories: police officers who had killed Black citizens (Derek Chauvin, Meade, Wilson); politicians who regularly espoused white supremacist ideologies (Donald Trump, Matt Gaetz, Jim Jordan); and their female equivalents in the worlds of politics and the media (Tomi Lahren, Ann Coulter, Marjorie Taylor Green).

Butler then fed these photos into Artbreeder, a website where users can create an account and upload up to eight “parent” photos, which are then used to produce a composite “child.” The artist then painted a portrait of each of these unique digital spawns, none of whom exists in real life.

“But it was freaky, because it felt like you knew the people. These are all people I could walk by in the Short North today, and that’s creepy,” Butler said of his initial reaction to seeing the computer-generated images. “Then it becomes a metaphor for how you never know which person could do you harm. And it also brings up the idea that these children, these digital children birthed of these parents, [represent] the ways that racism reverberates through generations.”

The three digital 'children' created and painted by David Butler

While Butler had zero interest in painting portraits of people like Meade, he said the digital amalgamations offered him a needed distance from the source material, describing the works as “just data, and that’s how I see them.” “I still haven’t painted a real white person in 10 years,” he said, and laughed.

The trio of portraits by Butler will be flanked on the gallery walls by myriad complex pieces crafted by contemporaries including Lance Johnson, a graffiti artist Butler labeled an “abstract gra-futurist.” “I was born and raised in New York City, so coming out of that bubble, it was a little disconcerting,” said Johnson, who, in addition to a handful of pieces gracing the walls of the Vanderelli Room, also painted a mural on the exterior of the building. “I call [the mural] ‘We the People’ because America … should be a celebration of diversity. We’ve come a long way, but there’s a lot more to do.”

Butler said that he hopes the work on display in “Whiteland” angers people, and forces them to confront a system that too many live comfortably within. “And I’m not saying you have to stop being white. You can’t stop being white just like I can’t stop being Black,” he said. “No, what you have to give up is the social construct that gives you power over my life. … And that’s all anybody in this show is asking folks to do, is to remember that all of this (Butler gestures at the three composite portraits) creates dead Black people in the streets, the white-washing of histories and laws that are structured to preserve white supremacy.”

Regardless of how this message is received, the artist said this group exhibit would likely be his last venture into this realm, serving as a bookend to a drive that started with paintings he started to create even prior to “Forceful Perceptions.”

“This is my last hurrah with this type of [work],” Butler said. “After this show, I’m only painting beautiful Black people and flowers. I want to be able to paint a landscape, or to do something surrealist that doesn’t necessarily have race at its core, but that celebrates a more positive, joyful [aspect] of Blackness. And that’s what I’m going to do from here on out.”