Bouton’s first solo show at Peters Projects hangs one foyer away from Kiki Smith’s display of monumental tapestries, “Woven Tales.” Smith collaborated with Magnolia Editions to digitally recreate collaged images as gigantic cotton Jacquard hangings. Bouton’s show could slide right into Smith’s rigorously woven oeuvre. Diverse materials mingle in novel ways to form a narrative that treads the line between history and fantasy. In “The Cage Went in Search of a Bird,” Bouton employs fabric, collage, blown and kiln-formed glass, photographs, videos and other media, to tell a tale of two writers, the fictions that surrounded them, and the hard realities they faced. Literary giants Charlotte Bronte and Franz Kafka are the show’s protagonists. Bronte died in 1855 and Kafka was born in 1883, but Bouton twists their timelines together with a shared biographical detail: both were diagnosed with tuberculosis. The widespread disease had cast a dark enchantment over the 19th-century psyche. Doctors dreamed up bizarre remedies designed to cleanse the body and soul, and artists and writers were often misdiagnosed due to their eccentric habits. Both Bronte and Kafka died young (at 38 and 40, respectively), and the former likely succumbed to typhus or dehydration rather than tuberculosis. Bouton imagines the two as pen pals who could share in their writerly passion as well as their physical suffering. Inkjet prints on aluminum pair excerpts from their letters, and a video installation calls visitors to exhale into a glass plate shaped like a ghostly face to activate clips of actors reciting the writers’ words. “One suffers in silence as long as one has strength to,” writes Bronte. “And when that strength fails one speaks without measuring one’s words too much.”
There are times when Bouton’s elaborate mythology crash lands. Paper cutouts of beetles and birds overtake collages and a large table installation, in an overwrought reference to Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Other objects capture shades of 19th-century paranoia with an eerie and gleeful specificity. Spanning the table is a set of interconnected vessels made from borosilicate glass and dotted with knobs that Bouton blew in single breaths. Remarkable wall hangings made from layers of powdered glass are adorned with Victorian-era wallpaper patterns, and were warped and punctured by expulsions of air from the artist as well. For the torrent of words and ideas that run through the show, Bouton hits home with the simplest of expressions: an exhalation.