Josefina Auslender’s “Los Caprichos 38” and Tom Butler’s “Ruin (01)” at Sarah Bouchard Gallery in Woolwich. Courtesy of Sarah Bouchard Gallery

Here’s the thing about trauma, grief and loss: Profound chasms of them can open up inside of you at any point in the day or night, long after they occurred. They can swallow you by surprise and make you feel suddenly drowning or adrift in a void of intractable memory. This is abundantly clear at Sarah Bouchard Gallery in Woolwich, in her last show of the 2023 season: “Josefina Auslender + Tom Butler, in conversation” (though Dec. 15).

This eloquent, if abstract, exhibition could hardly be more timely. Few single events inflict more widespread trauma, grief and loss than armed conflicts, and we, sadly, have our share of them around the world right now. The Israeli-Palestinian tragedy is most searingly fresh in our minds. But the Geneva Academy, which tallies armed conflicts around the world, numbers more than 45 in the Middle East and North Africa, over 35 in the rest of Africa, 21 in Asia, seven in Europe, six in Latin America. The human rights abuses and death tolls of these are staggering. The wages of human cruelty, it seems, have no bounds.

Auslender knows this trauma first-hand. A Buenos Aires-born artist now living in Cape Elizabeth, she endured Argentina’s Dirty War, an almost decade-long nightmare of state terrorism that spanned 1974 through 1983. Estimates of “desaparecidos” (or disappeared persons) run into the tens of thousands, and Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo continue to demand investigations into the disappearance of their loved ones, if for no other reason than to find closure. An earlier show at Sarah Bouchard of Auslender’s work highlighted the “Los Cuerpos” (“The Bodies”) paintings of that period, which featured abstracted female forms in positions of suffering, some bound, others seemingly curling in on emotionally scorching flames inside their torsos.

Josefina Auslender, “Los Caprichos (01),” 36.5” x 27.5” (framed), graphite on paper, 1983 Photo by Luc Demers

Chronologically, we would begin with a wall of larger “Los Caprichos” drawings from 1983 that reference her last year in Argentina as the genocide reached its peak. But they also provide a bridge out of the “Los Cuerpos” period and into the current works of this series. The bodies would eventually disappear, replaced by abstract space.

“Los Caprichos,” of course, was a famous portfolio of 80 etchings and aquatints by Francisco de Goya that scathingly satirized and pilloried the clergy, ignorance, greed and licentiousness, superstition, bigotry and other ignominious human behaviors. Auslender is not so moralizing as Goya, instead focusing her attention on the effects of this trauma on the body, which in these three works seem crouched in pain within ambiguous architectures.

Across from this wall is a similarly sized “Capricho” from 1991, made after her relocation to the U.S. “Los Caprichos (36)” and a companion piece, “(38),” on another wall, only vaguely allude to a body. Instead, they appear to depict those psychic chasms that open abruptly out of nowhere. Space seems actually to be separating, almost like a gaping maw with sticky tendrils forming at, and partially obstructing, the opening into the darkness. “Los Caprichos (36)” can also resemble a river or cenote of sadness.


At a very fundamental level, these are works about remembering what many of us would prefer to forget. It should be noted that Auslender’s medium in these is graphite, and that her process is so intensely obsessive that it becomes almost a kind of journey to redemption, a way of physically and psychically processing the visceral feelings of pain and trauma. The labor of this task is palpably Sisyphean. Bouchard calls Auslender’s work “epic,” and I couldn’t agree more. But let me return to this artist in a moment.

Tom Butler is a London-born artist who splits his time between Portland and the United Kingdom. His primary medium is photography, though most of what he does seems almost like “anti-photography” in that Butler is prone to obliterating images and calling into question everything we assume about the art form.

Tom Butler, “Memory Sludge (24) 1,” 24” x 24,” reconstituted photographic pigment on photographic paper mounted to panel, 2023 Courtesy of the artist

Many of the works on display here utilize photographs from his personal life, yet you never see an actual person or event. Subversively, Butler loosens the color pigments of his photographs so he can scrape them off and mix them into a pasty sludge-like medium (hence the title of this series, “Memory Sludge”). He then reapplies that sludge to the photograph as Rorschach-like forms, often within an interior that he minimally delineates with a simple line.

These “sludge” forms hark back to a previous series of self-portraits called “Stones/Figures/Spiders” in which Butler donned a black body sock and photographed himself in various contorted positions that never revealed his appendages or his face (only the top of his bald head). His body in these at least ostensibly “self” portraits resembles amoeba, something the pasty sludge forms also evoke.

Though Auslender and Butler did not create work with each other in mind (in fact, they did not see it all together until the opening), it’s clear they are kindred spirits on the subjects of memory and loss. By essentially defacing his photographs, Butler is obliterating, forgetting if you will, a former identity. With that invariably comes a sense of loss of the familiar self. Though at times we may wish to forget our former incarnations – particularly the soul child in all of us that holds and harbors our pain and fear, our coping mechanisms and protective structures – they can never, like matter, be completely destroyed.

Tom Butler, “Memory Sludge (24) 3,” 24” x 24,” reconstituted photographic pigment on photographic paper mounted to panel, 2023 Courtesy of the artist

The sludge can be read as embodying the ambiguity of memory, the way it bleeds and morphs and combines with other memories and experiences, eventually comprising the muddle of our personalities, the illusions of our self-images. In a sense, however, applying them back onto the photographs can also invoke the Buddhist concept of “self-remembering,” the process of stripping away all that is false or imagined about ourselves so that we can see and more clearly understand what (not who) we are as manifestations of being in the world. These blobs say something more primordial and, by implication, truer, about our nature.


Bouchard also hung two of Butler’s graphite “Ruins” drawings in this show, which he created during the COVID pandemic. These are rooms floating in space that speak to his sense of isolation. They are not in any way sheltering. They are dilapidated and exposed to the exterior in uncomfortable ways. Their overall impression is one of naked vulnerability. In this way, they complement the voids of Auslender’s large 1991 “Caprichos.” In her abysses, we plummet into darkness; in Butler’s, we feel we have no foundation under us, like we could free-fall into the ether, with nothing to grab onto.

Josefina Auslender, “Los Caprichos 2023 (07),” 15.5” x 13.25” (framed), ink on paper, 2023 Courtesy of Sarah Bouchard Gallery

Both of these artists are dealing with the disorientation of loss and the absence we feel in its wake. Yet Auslender’s “Caprichos 2023” works offer, literally and figuratively, a view out of the darkness. Here she switches mediums, using ink instead of graphite. All feature circles through which light is visible. In the words of her statement, “It’s like living in a cave and suddenly finding a light on the horizon and walking toward the light and coming out into the world again.”

These works are, essentially, a remembering of self. They followed a three- or four-year period of grief after the death of her husband in which she found it difficult to work. More loss, more absence, more pain. In each of these, we view the light from her perspective, feel ourselves spiraling down inside her interior process and touching into some foundational inner resource. In a few of these works – “Los Caprichos 2023 (07),” “(10)” and “(12)” – we see the scaffolds of Auslender’s mourning teetering and dissolving as she returns to her creative nature and – in the end – to herself in a new, yet somehow familiar incarnation.

Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: 

Comments are no longer available on this story

filed under: