Paul Villinski – Paradigm
on view September 11 – October 11, 2014
This solo exhibition at Morgan Lehman Gallery in Chelsea draws attention to the challenges of sustaining environments for some of New York’s native species. Paul Villinski, the artist who has been working with the image of the butterfly for the last couple of decades, this time uses his signature image in conjunction with several live species of this most celebrated insect. Working together with one of the leading Lepidopterists, Dr. Rudi Mattoni, together they were able to construct a special system, a butterfly machine as it became to be known, that allowed breeding generations of butterflies in a controlled studio environment.
From the gallery:
“The exhibition’s principle sculpture, Self-Portrait, is a life-size figure fabricated from slender steel rods, clothed in fine nylon mesh. Each day, a handful of native butterflies bred by the artist will occupy the enclosed interior volume of the figure. Over the course of the day, the butterflies discover openings in the mesh and exit, causing the figure to slowly exhale its living occupants. The exhibition also includes a series of three circular forms made with the artist’s signature medium of discarded cans, meticulously hand-cut in the forms of over thirty distinct butterfly species – all either endangered or extinct.”Interview Transcript
What inspired you to build the butterfly machine?
Paul Villinski: I’ve been working with butterfly imagery in my work for about two decades now and I employed it in a primarily symbolic fashion. I was essentially interested in the symbolism and metaphors the butterflies represent. Several years ago I was introduced by a curator to Dr. Rudi Mattoni, Ph.D., who is a leading lepidopterist in the United States and he and I became fast friends. He started to teach me about the actual butterfly biology About that time I started thinking about creating an art work that would employ live butterflies and an image of a human figure, filled with actual living butterflies struck me. So I started to move in that direction. Rather than simply purchasing butterflies that have ben bred by someone else it became very interesting to me to think about breeding butterflies in the studio, particularly, butterflies that are native to New York State, and butterflies which we caught ourselves.
Dr. Mattoni and I began to forage in the neighborhoods of New York City, including my own neighborhood. I caught my very first butterfly under his tutelage. We brought these butterflies back and set up a very rudimentary system for rearing butterflies in the studio.
Is the metaphor of transformation evident in other aspects of your work, if so, how?
Paul Villinski: My work has been involved with transformation for many, many years. In the simplest terms I’ve been involved in working with found materials – generally things that have been found on the streets of my neighborhood and that have no apparent value. And in the last decade or so, quite a bit of work done with aluminum cans. These cans are crushed by traffic passing over them. They really have no value at all. My task has really been to take these worthless, cast-off materials and transform them into something that has particular meaning, has this kind of resonance and has some aesthetic quality. That’s one of the reasons the image of the butterfly has been important to me over the years. The butterfly itself is a symbol of transformation and rebirth. And it’s really the universal symbol for metamorphosis and transformation. My practice of transforming materials in the studio, and the symbolism of the butterfly have held hands very nicely.
Butterflies and the environment
How does this project speak to the environmental issues that plague the butterflies? Do parallels exist between the butterflies’ issues and our own? Does damage to the environment affect us in similar ways?
Paul Villinski: What I hope to suggest with this self-portrait figure sculpture, which contains live butterflies and releases those live butterflies, exhales live butterflies during the course of the day. What I am hoping to suggest there is there is really no separation between homo sapiens and the rest of the natural world. We are all one. There is no difference between what happens to the flora and fauna on the planet and what happens to us. Ultimately, what happens to the butterflies will be our fate as well.
Science + Art = Awareness
Dr. Rudi Mattoni, Ph. D: The most troublesome feature that we face today is the deterioration of the environment. Scientific efforts have failed to communicate this problem to the public. [Paul and I] got together and collaborated on how to use the now-living butterflies as a vehicle for touching some part of the public consciousness and morality. At the beginning of the Paleolithic Era there was only one insect that was depicted in the cave paintings – it was the butterfly! It’s interesting to have this connotation of this great beauty of the butterfly that’s touched, somehow, the human soul, or the intuition or whatever you may want to call it and this is the issue I would like to see exploited, because we have to do something to change the current situation.
Challenges of artificial environments
Do you see this endeavor shaping future projects?
Paul Villinski: One of the big take-aways for me with the butterfly machine is that it’s incredibly hard to recreate a natural system in a human environment. We basically have spent a tremendous amount of time and effort trying to create a bio system that could support a handful of species of butterflies. The minute you remove both, the host plants and the butterflies from their natural environment, where they are surrounded by a kind of bio diversity that we can’t really even describe, they fail to flourish and they wind up being subject to all kinds of problems. It has proven to be far more difficult than I ever imagined it would be.
The butterfly machine ultimately represents to me a kind of dystopian vision of that world could be like, if we continue down this path of climate change and habitat destruction. We could, conceivably, wind up in a place where the only butterflies we see are reared in controlled environments. That they only way my four-year-old child is going to see a butterfly when he is my age is in a controlled environment, by going to some zoological display where butterflies have been reared artificially. I want to raise these kinds of concerns as an artist.
Paul Villinski: My work with the image was largely symbolic and then, over time my interest has really expanded to include the actual biology and the creatures themselves. And on Dr. Mattoni’s suggestions I went to the Peruvian Amazon last summer for a neo-tropical Lepidoptera field course. An astonishing experience – it was led by five of the top lepidopterists in the world. We flew to Lima, then flew to Iquitos, which is a city of a million people that doesn’t have a road connecting it to any other major city. Then we went up the Amazon for four hours in a boat, stepped off the boat, walked into a jungle into a research center and took a very extensive 100-hour class on butterflies and moths. Over the last two and a half year I’ve become very deeply involved in witnessing the life cycles of these species of butterflies that we are rearing now and this is part of what I want to try and share in this exhibition.
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