Daniel Butterworth’s exhibition, When the Black Dog Bites, completely fills gallery two at the La Trobe Art Institute. Step into the space and the air is thick and charged. It’s not an easy place to be. It’s dense with the emotional weight taken to create these works. There’s space for little else. You’d never guess there were two works missing.
Each of the self-portraits here are a response to the words of someone suffering depression. Daniel put a call out for the precious offerings and they came thick and fast, via an anonymous drop-off box at a gallery in his hometown of Kyneton.
Words like “I took my head out of a noose today mum.” They’re shocking, but they’re not for shock value. And they rocked Daniel to the core. He took them, lost sleep over them, lived with them in his head before envisaging a way to physically represent them, via body and facial expressions. He photographed himself in the midst of these words, and then painted.
“At the start I thought to myself, ‘I can do this’. By the end my wife even said, ‘you’ve got to stop this’. It was taxing,” he says. “There are still two more works I want to do, for the people who submitted the words, not for me, or for this exhibition.”
Daniel says he is fortunate to not have experienced depression in his own life, but this project has given him a small insight into what it may be like.
“I think for every single person it’s different. There’s not one type of depression. Not one reaction. Not one reason why people feel like that. Some people just can’t get out of bed. For weeks. They realise they should be happy – especially the ones with kids – but they just can’t get out of bed. I tried to feel how they felt, and that was where it got really taxing.”
Daniel is well practiced in the art of self-portraiture. When he submitted his folio on application to study visual arts at La Trobe University’s Bendigo Campus more than 25 years ago, it contained 40 paintings of himself.
“As a young kid going to the National Gallery, I’d go straight to the self-portraits,” he says. “I’d go and stand in front of the Rembrandt. When artists paint themselves you can really see they’re at their freest.”
Daniel grew up in a creative family; hence those childhood excursions to see the world’s great artists. His father is a sculptor, his brother studied alongside him at La Trobe. “It was nothing but fun,” Daniel says of those years in the uni art rooms. “My younger brother Matt was a year ahead of me in the same course. We’re so alike, and the lecturers kept mixing us up.
“What university did for me was to give me a saturation of what I love. It made me realise this is what I want to do. It was the start of taking myself seriously. I was 20 years old and at that age your head’s everywhere anyway and uni showed me the road I needed to take. It said, ‘this is you’.”
Daniel is now a prolific exhibiting artist, and part-time art teacher at Kyneton Primary School. He loves both jobs, and says the rewards come daily. Big and small. Like entering last year’s Archibald Prize with a portrait of Trentham chef Annie Smithers.
“The Archibald was by far the biggest artistic achievement I’ve had in regards to recognition, as well as the first time I was in the Doug Moran Portrait Prize. I felt like, now people can see what I’m putting out. In saying that, the biggest buzz I get is just when I’m painting, and I put my music on, and I’m into it. I think, wow, I just did that.”
Daniel says it’s also a joy to be exhibited here, in View Street, at La Trobe’s public gallery. “It’s good to have a show back where I started,” he says. “The opening was really exciting. Steve Turpie, my old painting lecturer, turned up and it was great to see a lot of the old faces I knew.”
Many people are continuing to turn up at the LAI, specifically to see these works. The sort of people who don’t usually attend galleries. The people many artists long to reach. “People who I never thought would see it are saying, ‘I saw your show’,” Daniel says. “It’s good. Art should be for everyone.”
When the Black Dog Bites is on show in Bendigo until March 5.