Kiah Butcher’s video-based exhibition Still Theatre at Lane Meyer Projects in Denver engages the history of Renaissance portraiture in both playful and critical ways.
Kiah Butcher: Still Theatre
January 13–February 26, 2023
Lane Meyer Projects, Denver
According to the gallery’s press release, the videos engage “the tradition of Renaissance style theatre,” and the genre’s “hyper-stylized costuming.” Likewise, each video contains a “curated array of props” that result in “carefully crafted vignettes.” Indeed, the outfits each subject wears and the settings in which they pose are elaborate, lush, and self-aware.
In her self-portrait, the Talk Show Host (2023), for instance, Butcher dons a green velvet beret, bright red ascot, and black fur coat while holding what appears to be an anatomically correct ceramic heart. She surrounds herself with hardbound books, flowers, a taxidermied quail, a dildo, religious candles, a mannequin’s arm, and a goldfish in a glass bowl.
While the majority of the objects remain stationary, each video incorporates a select number of moving elements. For example, the Talk Show Host contains plumes of smoke wafting upward in the background, as well as a goldfish circling the confines of a makeshift aquarium. The juxtaposition of inert and motion-based components fosters a surreal aura, signaling that something uncanny is afoot.
The videos of Still Theatre offer viewers a bevy of critical trajectories to explore. But one of the more fascinating arguments the exhibition forwards is its engagement with and against the history of Renaissance portraiture.
As John Berger notes in his iconic Ways of Seeing, Holbein’s the Ambassadors (1533), like many paintings of that era, contains men who exude a “certain presence,” primarily through the objects with which they “are surrounded and clothed.” That “presence” was intimately associated with wealth, which “oil painting celebrated” during that period.
Butcher bedecks her subjects in Still Theatre with garb that approximates the men in The Ambassadors, and, likewise, her settings are similarly decadent in their abundance. While her videos might echo the style of Renaissance portraits, they contain marked differences.
For starters, the subjects in Still Theatre are female, no doubt a challenge to patriarchal mores championed in Renaissance painting (or misogynistic voyeurism when depicting female bodies). Moreover, the backdrops’ inclusion of SPAM, lava lamps, sex toys, and fake fruit suggest that the accrual of objects is no longer tethered to economic elitism, but, rather, a ubiquitous function of late capitalism’s hyper-consumerism wherein object accrual is a mandatory aspect of existence.
Therein lies the most compelling feature of Butcher’s show: the productive tension produced between its similarity in form with an antiquated era and its divergence in content with that same, bygone period.