Tom Butler, Artist.  
Born London, UK, 1979, Lives Portland, ME & London, UK

MFA, Sculpture - Slade School of Fine Art, UCL, UK, 2007
BA Fine Art, Sculpture - Chelsea College of Art and Design, University of the Arts, London, UK 2005
BA History of Art and Design - Winchester School of Art, Southampton University, UK, 2000


2010 – present

I am fascinated by the process of conspicuous invisibility, the simultaneous human desire to both hide and perform. In a visual way, I collect memories, thresholds and hiding places and attempt to re-manufacture them. My work expresses my natural inclination towards introversion and the opposition of displaying artwork essentially about hiding. 

I appropriate anonymous found Victorian cabinet card photographs by incorporating personal symbols such as hair, masks and geometric abstractions. I paint on the surface with gouache and use analogue collage techniques to conceal, rearrange or cut away. I attempt to reveal aspects of imagined inner personalities of the anonymous Victorian sitters, knowing that I am cloaking them with parts of my own, often with a macabre sense of humour. 

Tell us about your most recent solo exhibition, Tom Butler: Divided Self.

Divided Self, opened at The Photographers’ Gallery in London on the 15th September and it’s on until 5th November 2017. It’s an exhibition of new work showcasing collages and double-sided pieces along side gouache painted Victorian cabinet cards. There are framed works in a scatter hang as well as cards wall-mounted on mini-shelves and the double-sided works are displayed on newly designed brackets made by Darbyshires Frame Makers especially for this exhibition. I love the hang, it feels very playful and keeps the viewer moving. The details for the show are as follows:

Tom Butler: Divided Self
The Photographers’ Gallery
15th September - 5th November 2017

When and where did Cabinet Cards begin? 

I started appropriating vintage postcards when I left art school because I had little money for material, no workshop to use and I was moving around a lot. Using them felt great because even though they were cheap and small they offered me a pictorial space to be creative. They were small portable readymade environments for me to intervene by inserting drawn objects. I made lots of bizarre sculptural proposals such as barriers dividing up towns, enormous bugs climbing up buildings or skies filled with balloons and wondered what it would like to make them for real, only to realise that the appropriated postcard was the work. 

One day I was looking for new postcards and found a stack of cabinet cards in a thrift shop. They were such beautiful photographic objects with just an edge of gothic that I’ve always loved. Now instead of intervening with a readymade landscape, I had an anonymous figure I could cloak as a kind of psychological clotheshorse*. I found through this process of concealment they seemed to ‘come alive’.

(This anecdote originally featured in ‘Conspicuous Invisibility’, An Interview with Tom Butler, by Alexandra Olczak. Full interview found here.)

Where do you see this body of work going? 

This series keeps surprising me and I don’t think it’ll ever be truly complete. My aim as an artist is to keep my baseline interests with concealment and performance consistent whilst developing new ways to express them. I am interested in other media but I think my community of cabinet card sitters will always continue to grow.  It might sounds odd but they’ve been there for me over the last seven or so years, I call them my ‘subliminal citizenship’

What helps you sustain your current creative practice?

I’m quite nine-to-five about my practice and make sure I sit at my desk every day. I make a lot but I edit a lot too because I find that’s where the magic happens. I drink a lot of tea.

What’s next for you?

In the past I’ve been asked what I would do if I worked with images of myself instead of the anonymous sitters and I’m actually working on a series of self-portraits. This feels very new because I’m generating my own source imagery and it’s pushing me toward different media too. My studio’s getting messier and I think that’s a good sign.