New York

Donna Byars

A.I.R. Gallery

In this exhibition Donna Byars confirmed the fact that intensely personal visions and dreams can generate constructions that bridge the division between the unique and the universal. Her work fluently argues that private iconographies are typically inspired by collective mythologies rather than by idiosyncrasies. Byars investigates a major issue that all artists face: how can personal impulse (and, in Byars’ case, dreams) become accessible, public language? This transmutation mystically but unquestionably occurs in her work. The consequences are mysterious and provocative, and persistently urge an intense, complex involvement from the viewer. The images Byars creates are at once unknown, unfamiliar, and yet archetypal and unforgettable.

The exhibition consisted of four large and three smaller sculptures along with several pencil drawings. The spartan installation and spare but warm lighting created the sensation of those moments at the beginning and end of each day that are neither day nor night. The dimly lit setting also suggested the psychological context of dreams—the shadowy region between sleep and groggy consciousness. Stepping into the gallery was like stepping into the past, or simply into a contemplative space, a space for the subconscious, and the work balanced this dialectic with acuity. Everything pulsated between private remembrances and collective but unknown history, forcing connections often ignored or resisted in contemporary Western life.

In the four large pieces, all completed in 1984, the artist creates small environments as open-ended as dreams and memories. They function as focal points for each viewer to begin with, wander from, and then return to. Pole of Grace/The Door consists of a small paneled wooden door hung from the wall. Adjacent to and slightly overlapping it is a wooden column with a capital of antlers.The door is richly layered with worn and weathered paint; the column and antlers appear to have been bleached by the sun to a light—absorbent but luminous gray. Any attentive explorer is likely to come across these kinds of found artifacts, yet Byars combines and alters them methodically yet mysteriously to create an image seemingly extracted from an evolving narrative or a series of rituals. These commonplace objects eloquently communicate the generative forces of life.

Elsewhere, Byars uses the cast concrete, gravestone-like tablets that are a motif in much of her earlier work. In two of the pieces, these objects are combined with wooden timbers which stretch across the floor to suggest sacred spaces, altars, and perhaps graves. Each tablet bears a carved symbol, an image formulated from the artist’s dreams. Anyone who has wandered through an old cemetery has probably felt the power of the poignant ensembles of scattered markers and stones that tell family histories to any stranger; Byars’ stones and constructions generate similar sensations without focusing on individual tales of life and death. Through the use of dreamlike symbols, she leaves the mystery intact while encouraging its unraveling.

In Place of the Wounded Healer, 1984, a chair holds a stone tablet. On an upper corner of the tablet is suspended an animal skull, seemingly in some state of decay or rebirth. Hay is spread around the legs of the chair. It is obvious from this and the other pieces that Byars delights in the patinas, the textures, and the imperfections of the materials she works with. Yet while she may enjoy the tactile qualities of these objects, the work seems to seek to transcend its concrete reality. The pieces seem almost expendable in the way that primitive objects were in the societies they were made in: they were valued for the messages they perpetuated, yet were not seen as intrinsically precious or unique. Byars claims a place for shamanism in art today, and shows that the artist can lead us away from an obsession with the contemporary to a reg ion of often forgotten memories. Through her dream-inspired iconography, viewers become collaborators in a search for revelations which may help them live and understand. In a society not organized by ritual, dreams are among the few experiences to convey primal meanings which, while personal, also communicate to the group; through individual archeologies, collective history can be excavated.

Patricia C. Phillips