Paul Butler's collage parties make going to the gallery feel like a hangout at your friend's place
Work hard, craft harder. Winnipeg's Paul Butler has been throwing legendary collage parties for 20 years
For the month of February, Toronto's Project Gallery has been transformed. It looks now more like a clubhouse or a community centre than any white cube. Long work tables have been arranged on the gallery floor; couches, too. They're holding record club meet-ups and screening every Winnipeg Jets' game. During one visit, the Erykah Badu mixtape inspired by "Hotline Bling" is on the turntable (I'm told music is key), and the gallerist and an attendant play ping pong.
Paul Butler, the artist who's reprogrammed the space for his residency there, hovers over a patch of work surfaces littered with magazine clippings. Graphics cropped from books and periodicals — say, a bike frame or a curling wave — abound, each waiting to be remixed. On Saturdays, the public is invited into the collage party. Everything you'd need to create a masterpiece is provided: the scissors, paper, glue, straight edges and tape. This is how Butler likes to make his art.
The Winnipeg-born, Toronto-based artist has been hosting the nomadic art happening — known as Paul Butler's Collage Party — for 20 years. He's thrown parties for groups as small as a dozen and as big as a thousand, at large international art institutions like MOCA LA and in kindergarten classes, for occupational therapy groups and corporate team-building exercises and, once, at the department store Bergdorf Goodman. He's done more than 100 Collage Parties to date, he figures. After the current edition, he'll select his favourites produced by the public over the month-long residency for a May exhibition at Project Gallery. His own recent collage works will appear simultaneously at a sister show across town at Division Gallery.
The very first Collage Party happened in 1998 at the artist's shared studio space inside a Princess Street warehouse in Winnipeg. The tenants decided to have an open house, and Butler, who was already working in collage, had left his studio a mess with cuttings. Partygoers started to play around with the materials and the night turned into a pissed-up crafting session — maybe a couple hundred people cutting and gluing, he remembers. Afterwards, everyone talked about "The Collage Party." So he staged another. Then another. A friend enrolled in curatorial studies at Goldsmiths, University of London, asked him to throw a version there. Each invite begot the next opportunity. Participation came easily.
"Even someone who shows up in a panic, who swears they can't draw a straight line, will walk away having completed a piece," he says. Once people begin flipping through books and magazines, the artmaking happens intuitively. It isn't like drawing, where you have to plan and execute an image from scratch, he says — collage asks only that you respond to the images. He tells people to ask if they need help. No one ever does.
Butler doesn't consider himself an instructor or an authority — more a facilitator. "I'll hear someone say, 'I'm looking for a car,' and I might just walk by and place a car book beside them." If he's built the source library correctly, collage-makers can create work about sports, politics — whatever compels them. "For the person who comes in to make their cat collage, I have cat books, too." He encourages donations of magazines and books the Collage Party can reuse. "There are never enough." And he gets excited showing off a library cart a friend recently lent him.
I love art, and I hate that someone might never step foot into a gallery because they're afraid to say something dumb. - Paul Butler, artist
After two decades as its host, Butler has developed a set of goals for the Collage Party — what he hopes it does or might do. First, he wants to build bridges over the gap between art communities and the general population. The white cube represents a barrier to entry for many. "I love art," he says, "and I hate that someone might never step foot into a gallery because they're afraid to say something dumb." The ping pong, the film screenings and the tunes are all intended to make the space more comfortable and communal — gallery-going made to feel more like a hangout at your friend's place.
Ultimately, Butler wants to promote creative exercise. The therapeutic benefits of artmaking are measurable, he says, but we mostly quit practicing art after high school (or earlier) unless we pursue it professionally. That's bogus. We can jog and understand that it's beneficial without ever intending to make the Olympics; the same should apply to drawing or sculpting or collaging.
He wants also to promote social art practice as a legitimate medium. An idea borrowed from German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys, Butler considers the Collage Party a work of social sculpture. Though he himself produces collage (quite well, too), the true outputs of his practice are the temporary communities created around his work tables.
Lastly — and this is a biggie — he wants to challenge current models of business and programming. Over his career, Butler has seen the art world from many perspectives: the emerging artist desirous of New York shows and a full-page ad in Artforum; the owner of a commercial gallery; the curator of a civic institution. As a mid-career artist, he's realized that what he wants most is just the ability to keep making art. He finds himself in search of the energy of art school, where you're surrounded by others also creating. That's what the Collage Party provides. But pop-ups will no longer suffice. Butler's now looking for a permanent home, a new gallery space in Toronto, where he can invite people to come hang out and make art anytime. He thinks he's found the spot. There's even room for a ping pong table.
In 2002, Butler and a group of friends took over Winnipeg's Plug In ICA, collaging there for a marathon 12 days — so long they could communicate only in images, he jokes. The next Collage Party, with any luck, will go on forever.
Paul Butler's Collage Party is at Project Gallery through February 24, 2018. Public events happen every Saturday. Visit Project Gallery for details.