New York

James Lee Byars

Mary Boone Gallery

For the past 20 years James Lee Byars has explored the medium of installation, usually incorporating himself into each work. His installations are thus not mere presentations of artifacts. Whether seated in a chair writing questions and reading them aloud to a spectator, or engaged in the ceremonial act of setting sheets of gold leaf on fire at twilight, Byars activates the objects within his surroundings. By including himself as part of the artistic spectacle, he reverses the conventional role of subject/object by inverting the object (that which is beheld) into another subject (a beholder). This transformation results in a reciprocal confrontation between two subjects rather than the traditional, unidirectional subject/object relationship.

Byars’ recent installation consisted of objects rendered in a Minimalist vocabulary and placed in a spare but dramatic setting. Two lava spheres of equal size occupied the center of the floor in the gallery’s front room, while a large white marble ring and a marble stele initialed “Q.R.” stood several yards apart from one another in the back room. The three objects were aligned along a single axis, although, because of the wall between the two rooms, they could not all be seen at once. The gallery’s walls were painted deep red, and each room was dimly lit by four clear incandescent light bulbs. The lighting was so low that it took a few moments for one’s eyes to adjust, and then the objects appeared to materialize from within the darkness. Overall, the visual effect was meditative and tranquil. As in his previous works, Byars himself was part of the installation, showing up now and then in a gold lamé suit. His presence there heightened the drama of the transformed space, creating a tension between the meditative and theatrical aspects of the work. Effect became affect as the illusion of sanctuary gave way to its artificial staging.

Although Byars had dramatically altered the appearance of the gallery, his installation was incorporated into the gallery’s context as much as the gallery had become a part of the work’s context. This became clear as one’s eyes adjusted to the dim lighting and one perceived the sculptural objects in relation to the areas of the gallery that had not been altered. From within the darkened rooms, the front desk and rear office were conspicuously present, showered in sunlight or artificial lighting. This jarring contrast became the most prominent feature of the installation.

Byars’ presence in a gold lamé suit was a metaphor for this tension. The gold read either as a symbol of ideal purity (the alchemist’s quest for material transcendence) or as the more worldly sign of corruption, money, and greed. The duality of meanings was integral to the installation as a whole. As a place for art’s commodification, the gallery setting—which Byars had incorporated into the “esthetic” of the installation—is antithetical to the nature of both a conceptual and a spiritual environment.

The installation unified art’s esthetic and commercial environment in order to signify the crisis in current spirituality. Like the PTL ministry and other forms of televangelist performance, the success and survival of Byars’ art is dependent upon its ultimate commodification. As in all instances where spirituality is codified as religion, his art works best for those who already believe.

Kirby A. Gookin