Fantastic & Resolute: Amy Casey at the Butler Institute of American Art

Amy Casey, Clear Light of Day (detail), acrylic on panel, 12 X 12 inches, 2020.

It’s a precarious landscape, at once intimate and vast, that flips the uneasy switch at the back of one’s neck. It’s a magnificent wreck that somehow amplifies the joy in that moment balanced between destruction and creation. It’s the fragility of one small brick spinning out from an enormous cyclone of urban decay. As Amy Casey says about her work, “sometimes you try to escape but it doesn’t end up that way.”

Fascination with and immersion in chaos and change drive Casey’s show at The Butler Institute of American Art, on view March 17 through May 12. Casey, who was chosen by the Butler as their 2022 CAN Triennial Exhibition Prize Winner, also won the 2023 Paul and Norma Tikkanen Painting Prize for realism and the 2011 Cleveland Arts Prize, and has received awards from the Ohio Arts Council. She has participated in residencies, fellowships, and exhibits across the country, and is currently represented by Zg Gallery in Chicago.

Casey is captivated by cities and their constant state of change. Her paintings, which range from intimate six-by-six-inch squares to massive, wall-filled landscapes, combine the dynamics of flux with a preponderance of heavy brick structures. This uncomfortable combination simultaneously fascinates and terrifies: how can a towering column of buildings seem to whirl? But it does, in Clear Light of Day, which shimmers with its dervish energy encased in tiny, tiny bricks.

Swoon, acrylic on panel, 6 X 6 inches, 2023.

“I’m interested in change in general,” says Casey. “And I show the tiny disasters of your life. I feel I’m a world builder and then things happen. For me, this show seems to be about life right now: catastrophe, escape; catastrophe, escape.”

Casey charts her fascination with the urban landscape in chaos to the 2008 housing crisis, when everything felt like it was coming apart and houses seemed to be flying toward destruction. To assimilate what was happening, Casey began walking through cities, taking photos of ordinary buildings. She was drawn again and again to the gritty, dreckish industrial buildings that peppered Erie, Pennsylvania, where Casey grew up, and that she found while living in Chicago and Cleveland.

The ubiquity of industrial buildings resonates with people across the world. While her urban landscapes seem rooted in the Rust Belt vernacular, Casey explains that “everyone has industrial buildings. I feel like they are things that people feel familiar with. One person in Russia emailed me saying, ‘you must have seen where I was!’”

Incipient, acrylic on panel, 6 X 6 inches, 2023

Casey insists on painting actual buildings, keeping piles of photos sorted by size in a bank of thin file drawers (labeled 2-3 Story Buildings, 4-6 Story Buildings, and so on) in her studio. “In a lot of my paintings, I’m making little ghost towns since these buildings don’t exist any longer,” she notes. A productive insomniac, Casey trolls cities in the depths of 2 am via Google Maps, hovering over real buildings to find the perfect fit for her next production of chaotic perfection.

And for Casey, destruction is as planned as creation: more often than not, she first paints buildings complete and intact, then destroys them. “The majority of the time I first make the building either entirely intact or just too intact and then think ‘not destroyed enough,’” she says. “I either paint holes on or scrape parts of it away or both. It’s hard to see exactly where the crumbles need to happen before I see the whole building. Sometimes I think I go into a little trance while painting them and get carried away. I paint a whole row of intact buildings that I like a lot and then remember that they need to be blown up. Though I also like to keep some intact—the ones that keep hanging in there.”

Because despite the coming apart in an agony of flying brick, Casey’s work is not depressing. Alarming, breathtaking, stunningly captivating: yes. But in her infinitesimal attention to exquisite detail lies deep, deep love and even joy. In Everything is Fine (a Midwest-Nice mantra if ever there was one), a wasteland of deconstructed buildings of brick and stone weigh down two-thirds of the background—but in the foreground emerge two sturdy frame houses from luminous tree stumps surrounded by a panoply of delicate, light brown mushrooms.

Flotsam and Jetsam, acrylic on paper, 22 X 30 inches, 2022.

Casey’s reintroduction of nature into her urban landscapes reflects both current anxieties around climate change as well as a personal return to hiking and spending more time in the woods. She calls herself a sponge painter, in that what she absorbs starts showing up in her work: when she started swimming, expanses of water appeared in her paintings; the natural world in her recent works draws from places like the small pockets of mossy stumps found in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

This tension between the built environment and the natural world resonated with the Butler Institute of American Art. Casey’s mastery of visual organization is stimulating in a dichotomous way: she produces Cubist renderings of fantastic urban landscapes surrounded by organic elements, while playing with scale in a way that alarms and delights.

“Casey’s work is strong, thought-provoking without being trite, and worthy of attention,” says Liz Hicks-Skeels, permanent collection manager & registrar of the Butler. “In her piece Flotsam and Jetsam, I was struck by how the title itself is really thoughtful. Flotsam are accidentally discarded objects; jetsam are objects purposely thrown overboard to save a ship. Here again is Casey’s dichotomy: both the accidental and the purposeful, with the sublime ocean at its fiercest, swallowing up all these buildings. And again, here is the fragility of humanity and our role on this planet.”

Casey’s show at the Butler will feature a range of her recent works—large and small, chaotic and peaceful—balancing doom with ever-present hope. “I am curious and interested in how so many little things come together to make something bigger,” says Casey. “Either chaos or a beautiful new structure.”

The Butler Institute of American Art is located at 524 Wick Avenue, Youngstown, Ohio, 44502. Hours are 11 am to 4 pm Tuesday through Saturday and noon–4 pm Sunday. The Butler is closed on Mondays and major holidays, and admission is free.

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