New York

Michael Byron

Luhring Augustine | Chelsea

“Charming” is not a word I usually associate with art that I like or respect. But “charming” is the best word I can think of to describe Michael Byron’s recent exhibition, entitled “The Faust Cycle.” The five works in this show, paintings incorporating sculptural elements, comprise tableaux based on the legend of Faust. Byron claims to have been inspired by Goethe’s properly serious Faust, but he seems to have been influenced to a greater extent by the cheesy 1967 film version of the story starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. He renders the Faust legend as a cross between a sitcom and a medieval puppet show. His tone is that of a screaming sideshow barker telling a haunting story for the hundredth time. Byron takes enormous liberties, mixing strains of operatic melodrama with various icons of popular culture, and giving the well-known story surprising twists.

My favorite work in the show was Mephisto, 1988, in which a jovial cloud motif serves as the ludicrous setting for a portrait of Howdy Doody. Tracings of three pairs of eyes run the width of the canvas, “pentimento-ized” by strains of beige and brown paint, as if the eyes were peering out from somewhere behind the picture. A 3½-foot-high steel sculpture spelling out the work’s title stands to the left, casting its shadow on the surface of the painting. This work, like many of Byron’s, radiates a cryptic sarcasm.

Margaret, 1988, mocks Minimalist painting; four blocks of color sewn together badly, as if to heighten the entire endeavor’s theatricality, are juxtaposed with a piece of sheet music for the song “Careless Love.” A feminine doll-like figure is painted onto the sheet music. This time around the sculpture spells out the slang expression “Your Sister,” working as the perfect punchline to this spectacle in a bottle.

Byron shows a knack for juxtaposing high and low culture themes. There are limitations to his project, not the least of which is an apparent admiration for Sigmar Polke, an artist whose depth and range he can only hint at. But Byron’s work has humor and vitality as well as the too often neglected qualities of charm and lightheartedness. He reminds us that it takes as much intelligence to get a laugh or smile as it does to produce a tear.

Christian Leigh