Invitation To The Labyrinth
John Yau, Writer And Poet
His firm stanzas hang like hives in hell
Or what hell was, since now both heaven and hell
Are one, and here, O terra infidel
Before examining the myriad particulars of Dean Byington’s recent paintings, and they do brim with a plethora of details, it is useful to place them within a larger art historical context. The reason for this is because Byington’s use of photo-silkscreen techniques places him in the company of contemporary artists such as Theresa Chong and Philip Taaffe, as well as connects him to the groundbreaking figures, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, both of whom began in 1962 to use photo-silkscreens in their paintings. Thus, Byington is working within an area of painting which has been established as well as redefined by a group of brilliant artists. For the viewer to begin to understand the full extent of Byington's remarkable accomplishment, it is necessary to isolate the various ways he has distinguished himself from the other artists who have incorporated photo-silkscreen into their process.
What Rauschenberg and Warhol realized was that photo-silkscreen gave them swift access to both the rapidly changing world and the burgeoning world of mass media. For them, photo-silkscreen was a logical development of earlier procedures. Starting in the late 1950s, Rauschenberg began using a solvent which enabled him to transfer a printed image to another surface. In his earlier paintings, Warhol used a projector, rubber stamps, and tracing to transfer his found images onto canvas. Whatever else their differences, what both Warhol and Rauschenberg share is a love of images from mass media and everyday life.
In contrast to their predecessors, Byington, CHong and Taaffe range much further afield. Recognizing that photo-silkscreen gives them permission to appropriate from innumerable sources, presumably anything that can be photographed, these artists use that possibility very differently than Warhol and Rauschenberg, not to mention artists closer in time, such as David Salle and Richard Prince. For one thing, Byington, Chong, and Taaffe don't mine sites we associate with newspapers and other forms of mass media. Secondly, the atmosphere of disgust and cynicism that permeates much of Salle's and Prince's work is not something they have chosen to extend. If anything, something closer to the opposite is true. Thirdly, Byington, Chong, and Taaffe arrived at photo-silkscreen through very different routes than their predecessors.
Thus, Byington's earlier work was photography based. Using a photo-sensitive surface, he was able to project and collage together disparate images on a canvas, which he then reworked with varnish and oil. Many of the images were of war technologies. Two important changes occurred when Byington moved from photo-emulsion to photo-silkscreen. The first was in imagery, as he began using illustrations (or pre-photographic sources). The second is that he composed the scene so that the viewer is implicated as someone who has entered into the situation. By engaging the viewer on a visceral level, Byington is able to tap into a more complex realm of possibilities. Whatever didactic impulse one felt in the earlier work is now completely submerged. It is not gone, it is just no longer visible.
Byington, Chong, and Taaffe typically employ photo-silkscreen, usually in tandem with other techniques, to carefully assemble a densely layered composition. For them, the photo-silkscreen process is a tool of excavation; it can extract images buried or forgotten beneath the present. Excavation is different than appropriation, which is how the work of David Salle has been characterized. And yet, even though they have excavated their images from a wide range of sources, they make their work contemporary through frontality, layering, flatness, and instantaneity. Everything in their work arrives at once. Through their excavations and reassembling of images, they recover the glory of the library at Alexandria, although in a very different form than the original.
At first glance, Byington's work seems conservative. But we should know by now that appearances can be deceiving, and, as I think will become increasingly apparent, this is doubly true when it comes to Byington's paintings. Formally, there are three ways he differentiates his work from that of his peers and his predecessors: subject matter, composition, and palette. Thus, one could say that Byington uses the basics of painting to distinguish his work from others who employ photo-silkscreen.
Instead of working within the accepted contemporary mode that includes repetition, patterning, multiple images placed side by side, and all-overness, Byington uses photo-silkscreen to present a highly detailed woodland scene whose most likely source is a nineteenth century engraving from either Victorian England or Symbolist France. In counterpoint to the scene's spatiality, Byington adds another layer of images or abstract marks, which reminds us that we are looking at a picture, a flat thing. Thus, from the outset, he confronts the viewer with a visual conundrum. The various contradictions between spatiality and flatness that occur throughout the painting makes us conscious of our physical relationship to the landscape. For one thing, they clue us into the fact that we ought to look at the intricate scene more closely. For although Byington uses a palette of black and white, which echoes the original source, he isn't simply transferring the image from one locale to another. Rather, through collage and other means, he alters the landscape in many small, but telling ways.
In King and Queen, (page 17), about a third of the way down from the top, and in the middle of the painting, there is a horde of rats swarming over, as well as hungrily nibbling at, an animal carcass. A little further down and to the right, a rabbit walking on his hind legs and looking furtively over his shoulder is about to enter the doorway of his burrow. He's carrying a walking stick and a small empty sack and is wearing striped knee-length pants. Just behind him, and seemingly part of the ground, are three smaller-sized dogs. They exist in a world which is both different and contiguous with the one occupied by the rabbit. Depicted in delicate lines, one of the dogs is playing a French horn.
Suddenly, King and Queen seems to be animated by a sage but zany spirit which is reminiscent of Lewis Caroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, and Edward Lear, whose nonsense botany includes such concoctions as Shoebootia Utilis and Sophstuggia Glutinous. And yet, before we take too much comfort in that thought, we should look a little longer, as well as consider all the different scenes within the painting. Soon, we notice moles burrowing into holes, as if they are trying to escape an unseen danger. Some flowers seem too large in comparison to what is around them. In the trees in the background, for example, here and there one sees a large flower peeking through the leaves. And above the rabbit's door are two similar doors, each small than the one preceding it, which means the rabbit is entering the bottom floor of a three-story mound. Because the doors keep getting smaller, one wonders who lives in the other domiciles. Thus, while the landscape is populated by creatures we associate with fairy tales and children's books, we are not likely to consider it a benign or even pleasant place. One has the unmistakeable feeling that, even though the present is chaotic and disturbing, a far more devastating cataclysm occurred in the not-so-distant past.
This sense of devastation is reinforced by what Byington puts into the painting, as well by what he leaves out. There are at least five white paths (or blank abstract trails) starting near the bottom edge of King and Queen. All of them recede into the intricately detailed landscape, as well as pull our attention upward. Thus, they are both paths and flat abstract shapes or meandering bands. This duality reminds us that King and Queen is both a picture and a flat thing, a labyrinthine world to contemplate rather than get lost in.
By placing abstract bands and flat, irregular shapes in his paintings, Byington reverses what Rauschenberg and Johns began making clear in the '50s, that an image can be folded into abstraciton without causing it to lose the power of its self-contained existence. Byington's abstract shapes, their negative or empty spaces, tilt the images toward the realm of speculation and ambiguity, toward a self-contained order. For by interlocking abstract shapes and representational images, and making each completely dependent on the other, Byington achieves a state [similar] to the one described by Wallace Stevens when he wrote:
There it was, word for word,
The poem that took the place of a mountain.
By taking the place of their predecessors, Byington's woodland scenes are able to inaugurate new trajectories of speculation.
Beyond their formal power to direct our attention, how are we to read these paths or abstract bands? Why are they blank rather than rocky? If we read them as snow, they contradiction the profusion of flowers and the leafy trees surrounding them. Or is this a world where snow and sunflowers can coexist? Their blankness infuses the painting with an air of devastation. It's as if, in this remote, rural world, we have encountered places (grooves in the earth) where nothing either grows or settles.
Another disconcerting aspect of the paths is that they suggest that we are standing at the very edge of [the] world the painting depicts. Are we giants looking down at a diminutive world that we are about to trample across? Or are we children about to enter into the realm of a fairy tale? Are these two states of being interchangeable? And if these questions don't add to the complex emotional tone of the painting, what about the horizontal bands of green paint Byington has placed in the upper third of the painting? Why are only some of the tree trunks green?
While King and Queen may have initially struck us as a highly intricate woodland scene, what we slowly realize is that it is a scene marked by numerous, inexplicable interruptions. Rather than calling attention to these interruptions, the artist lets us discover them in our looking. In this sense, the subject of the painting is perception. What do we see? And how do we see (or frame) it?
In all of his paintings, Byington provokes us to ask questions as well as make connections. However, we never feel that he is being gratuitous. These are not visual puzzles where looking becomes a form of distraction, as well as a game played between artist and viewer. Thus, I would like to make one further observation about King and Queen. As our attention wanders from one part of the painting to another, as we try to take in all the different kinds of unexpected visual information that we are encountering, don't we become like the rats? Don't our eyes swarm over this world, nibbling at one thing and then another? And here may be one of the darker questions Byington raises: What is it that we will finally find sustaining as we devour all that is in front of us?
King and Queen makes us conscious of the split between our animal self and our thinking self. We ask ourselves: What does it mean to look at a landscape? How do we see it? Do we see it in terms of beauty or value? Are there other factors in play? What might these factors be?
Despite their allusions to the Victorian and Symbolist eras, as well as to children's books, Byington's paintings are hardly nostalgic. In fact, these paintings strike me as both visionary and emotionally attuned to the sense of impending disaster that marks our historical moment. At the same time, as much as these paintings evoke disaster's imminent arrival, they also suggest that devastation is an inherent part of our history, that we have already entered a world that has been devastated, and that we inevitably end up waiting for a cataclysmic moment to arrive. What stops these paintings from being shrill cries of doom, because they are far from being that, is their opaque and tangled beauty. It is a beauty that is strange and, in this day and age, quite unlikely, and we should be thankful for it.