Entropy Has No Opposite
Griff Williams, Artist and Director: Gallery 16 / Urban Digital Color
In the San Francisco Bay Area where Dean Byington lives and works, the seismic shifting of the earth is ceaseless. Inhabitants along the famed San Andreas and Hayward faults live in a state of perpetual denial, building homes staked to the side of hills, perched on high cliffs, and balanced over scenic, but perilous drops. All the while, the earth buckles and shifts creating new topographies on a daily basis. There’s no question of the probability that the earth under San Francisco will shake with cataclysmic violence; it's both a certainty and a matter of time. Yet, we live upon the powder keg in blissful detachment. Human history is told through the rise and fall of civilizations, where countless cultures share the same blissful disregard for their looming fate. Great powers crumble, primeval forests disappear, and thriving cities slowly turn back into wilderness under the dominion of Nature. While these ruins speak of death, they also remind us of life and the interconnectedness of all things.
On July 16, 1945, at 5:30 a.m., a fearsome burst of light exploded over the desert in southern New Mexico, and Trinity changed the course of human history. The atomic bomb’s yield, proportional to 18,000 tons of TNT, astounded even the scientists who had had developed it. New found concerns that such power was in the hands of human beings led to self examination, reconsideration of spiritual and moral convictions, and a realignment of societal values. Dean Byington’s parent's worked on the Manhattan Project. His father directed various engineering elements of the Project and handled the instrumentation at the Nevada blast sites, measuring gamma rays, x-rays, and neutrinos. His mother, a geologist, became one of J. Robert Oppenheimer's secretaries, helping to establish the Los Alamos library by collecting and cataloging the notes written by the scientists.
Following the war's fearsome end, Byington's father entered the private sector in Culver City, California as the founder of PENCO (Pacific Electric Nuclear Company. Using technology that he had developed and patented during the Manhattan Project, he designed and produced an analyzer to measure levels of Uranium radiation; the device was sold around the world.
The Byingtons’ new home in Culver City was close to the production hub of the Hollywood film industry. As it happened, both the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Desilu Studios were within walking distance for Dean and his friends, and the outdoor full-scale sets for films and television shows became their favorite hangout. Sneaking in to play in the deserted sets, the boys entered the worlds of Gone With the Wind, Citizen Cane, The Andy Griffith Show, Hogan’s Heroes and Bonanza. Dean’s childhood memories are filled with the time spent playing in the artifice and falsehood of these sets. He remembers, "The sense of abandonment in there is a memory I still carry, the feeling of isolation and decay in those lots and sets was very palpable and hard to shake. Trestle bridges connecting to nothing; an empty zoo, stalls of fake snow, railroad dining cars placed just beyond the front steps of Beverly Hills mansions. In these studios, an elaborate stair banister would go up to the landing, turn the corner and after that turn, out of sight of the camera, it would just end abruptly, cut off, no longer needed to complete the illusion."
Immanuel Kant wrote “The order and regularity of the appearances, with which we entitle nature, we ourselves introduce. We could never find them in appearances, had we not ourselves, or the nature of our mind, originally set them there.” Since the earliest days of Hollywood, sets have been constructed to create illusions; the convincing façades made of plywood, paint, chicken wire, are designed to fool the camera, then fall apart. David O. Selznik wrote “Nothing in Hollywood is permanent. Once photographed, life here is ended. It is almost symbolic of Hollywood. Tara had no rooms inside. It was just a façade. So much of Hollywood is a façade.” Byington's memory of these film industry contrivances foretell a mood and temperament that would pervade the pictorial inventions seen in his later canvases.
The complexity of his compositions are difficult to describe and equally hard to photograph. They are incredibly dense organizations of intractable ambiguities. One identifies the individual elements that appear in his hyper-intricate landscapes, but the organizational structure of the ecology he creates is unfamiliar. It brings to mind Aristotle's Paradox of the Grain of Millet. It is the argument that a single grain of millet makes no sound upon falling, but a thousand grains make a sound. Hence a thousand nothings become something. The totality of Dean's vision requires an overwhelming attention to the details that make his cosmology palpable. It requires complete commitment on the artist's behalf to convince the viewer that these daunting vistas have an infallible logic. He succeeds in this task by overwhelming the viewer with an unrelenting and endless story. One loses themself in the complexity of the world he creates and the multiple, often conflicting narratives in each painting. We look into his environments and see circuitous blank paths cutting through hills of a thousand flowers. The stark white paths that we follow with our eyes may not be there at all, as they are more a type of erasure, an elimination of something. They are absences that lead to entanglements of extraordinary structures frozen in a kind of suspended activity. We aren't sure whether these structures are destinations or long abandoned relics of earlier inhabitants. They may be in states of construction or adaptive evolutionary change. The oppressively dense architecture is often held upright by it's own gravitational logic, or by the same precarious wooden stilts that stake homes to the side of the Berkeley Hills and the facades of the MGM lots. Byington has created and recycled an endless iconography of flowers, weasels, windmills, crystals, caves, mushrooms, burrows, machinery both real and imagined.
The disjointed labyrinthine structures of Byington's work may be fueled by the legacy of dark scientific experiments or the artifice of Hollywood's past, but they also share a sympathy with the Wunderkammer, the sixteenth century treasury of all things astonishing and exotic. Precursor to the modern Museum, the Wunderkammer celebrated the intersections between science and superstition, the natural and artificial. It housed an astounding array of drawings, illustrations and objects of curiosity meant to celebrate unexpected connections and elicit exploration of our world. Through the unexpected relationships, the new interdependencies, the idiosyncratic climate of his environments, Byington’s juxtapositions also encourage our interpretation of a dynamic universe, and it is endless.
Dean's dizzying constructions are made through an elaborate and evolving process that employs collage, drawing, digital compositing and finally, silkscreen. The canvases are amalgams of both time and material process. At their root, his paintings utilize a type of collage process, one that he invented through years of trial and error. Dean scours antique books for engraved illustrations. From this scavenged archive, he cuts tens of thousands of tiny sections to be taped together in a new, impossibly dense enigmatic landscape. His process is born from an interest in science, history, architecture and reproduction technologies. The historical technique of engraving is central to his work. Engraving was perfected in the late 1400's and is the precursor to etching and subsequent photomechanical methods of image making. It is done by incising or gouging distinctive hatched lines into a metal plate, which is then inked and printed with pressure. To the contemporary eye, the incised mark-making style of the engraving is evocative of a bygone era. Dean absorbs this stylistic motif for precisely this reason. As viewers of visual images we digest thousands of visual signals from a single image. Each signal reveals something specific to the image's origin. The stylistic choice of engraving is a Trojan horse. We are comforted by the nostalgic familiarity of its appearance. Engraving has earned a place of confidence and trust with the viewer. It is identified with artistic bedrock like Albrecht Dürer and Rembrandt, as well as being the very technique that creates American currency.
Dean has trained himself to draw in the manner of early nineteenth century engraving to reduce his dependency upon the vanishing Victorian archives for his work. His process is a type of architecture; his building material is the engraved mark of a preceding artist. By adopting the work of this artist, he gives it new life. In this way, his work represents a constant state of elasticity and regeneration. Dean cuts and clips small fragments of earlier artistic impressions, arranging the elements into astonishingly original landscapes. They're devoid of human beings, yet the evidence of human agency is still apparent. Reclamation and renewal are constant themes throughout his work. Amidst a dense forest, fantastic architectural structures appear in various states of limbo, some in the process of being built, some in the state of decay. We see open pit mines, monuments, totems, hives, windmills, gem piles, but nowhere do we see the authors of these marvelous formations - just the evidence of these monuments in transition. His intricate environments frequently disregard the properties of earthly physics. As Dean describes, "A boat floats through its center, and it has a lightness in complete opposition to the weight of the landscape and its debris, with more of a connection to the sky than the land below."
Like most artists, his medium of choice is based on its efficiency and utility to convey a relevant message. The tessellated process Dean employs to create his canvases has one foot in the past, and one firmly in the future. His combination of antiquated image making processes are merged with today's most advanced digital editing software. Once the composition is collaged together from thousands of cut bits of paper, they are taped to backing sheets in sequential order. This system is used to speed the digital editing process, in much the same way a green screen is employed in film making to separate actors from their background. Collage sections are professionally scanned, isolated and reassembled in the computer following the grid order of the original composition. Each section is organized digitally, and the parts are then shaped and molded into a unified composition. Dean then uses the high-resolution digital file to generate film, which then is used to create silkscreens, which he prints onto fine linen. He continues to work, drawing and painting on the printed images, to unify them into a seamless invention.
Although his source material is analog by nature, the drawing and engraving is ultimately strengthened by the computing power of cutting edge technology. Dean’s embrace of technology as a means to an end is in keeping with the historical alliance of art, science and technology. The world’s most enduring innovations have been an unexpectedly fluid union of these disciplines. Printmaking, itself a technology, enabled the development of new knowledge in the sciences. The camera obscura aided the artistic rendering process, which gave way to the alchemy of photography which, in turn, changed human history. Thirty five thousand years ago a pencil thin ivory flute was carved out of the tusk of a mammoth with precisely placed finger holes to insure pentatonic tonality. Artists have always gravitated towards new and unexpected ways of processing knowledge and transmitting experience. In Dean's case, his laborious and multilayered method of art-making is as byzantine as the fantastic worlds he creates.
Dean's childhood home was full of machines, those his father was devising for the Manhattan project, and those designed to be used for less esoteric applications. Along with Tesla coils and amps, the family developed devices to help his mother. "My mom was a weaver; she had a weaving business in LA creating fabrics for the design industry. We created all kinds of machines to speed the process." From such a background it is only fitting that Dean would develop a keen interest in the union of creativity, science and the ontology of an artwork. These disciplines are inquiries into form and structure. For many artists this subject is at the root of their life's work. This same theme is found in contemporary biology and physics. Chaos theory is compelled by the question of the organization of form. One of the most revolutionary ideas to have emerged from physics is that the universe is essentially participatory. In quantum theory, the very act of observing subatomic particles changes the way the particle will present itself to the observer. When philosophers and scientist erect models to describe the laws of nature, do those models describe what’s really present in the world, or do they only reflect the rhetoric we use to depict our world? Noted physicist John Wheeler, colleague of Einstein, wrote “Useful as it is under everyday circumstances to say that the world exists ‘out there,’ independent of us, that view can no longer be upheld. Quantum physics is describing what I call the physics of the dreamlike nature of reality. Like a mass shared dream, we are all literally moment by moment calling forth and collaboratively ‘dreaming up’ this very universe into materialization. When we contemplate the past in this very moment, it has the same ontological status of and no more reality than a dream we had last night. Just like this present moment, when we contemplate it tomorrow, will in that present moment have no more reality than a figment of our imagination." Such is the concept behind the "Beholders Share", that an artwork is incomplete without the perceptions and prejudices of the viewer. Living systems and forces in nature are not linear, nor is the narrative within his paintings. Byington’s narratives are largely hidden to the viewer within the dense iconography he employs. His encoded meanings in his paintings are nonlinear systems, that change with unpredictable jumps much like the transition between a horse’s walk and a gallop. All have deep personal meaning to the artist, but the symbolic iconography he crafts often yield more questions than answers.
We evolve by scrutinizing previously held notions. Ideas, systems and practices that were once seen as fact, become relics of advancing thought. "Here Be Dragons" became shorthand for mapmakers to proclaim uncharted regions on maps. These works of fiction actually guided voyages around the globe. Time itself makes fantasy out of fact, makes objects of utility those to be considered only as artifacts of curiosity. We live on shaky ground and always have, both actually and metaphorically. Dean Byington shows us our world, an eerily silent view of our past, our future, and our present, only without us. The evidence of our wants, confirmation of our fears and details of our hubris are all that is left behind for us to ponder. Take comfort. The good news is, everything is in it's right place.