Rotterdam

Michael Byron

Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art

In the work of Michael Byron problems of identity emerge from different backgrounds, suggesting questions to the viewer, only to disappear again into the monochrome ground of the painting. Forms, numbers, and letters are neatly separated from one another. Clearly distinguished as autonomous, independent phenomena, they are combined with each other in a composition that creates a kind of theater of the absurd. In these different exhibitions, series and thematic complexes are apparent. Byron plunders an entire trove of symbols, and variously arranges them on panels. Their interconnections must be read, interpreted, and filled in by the viewer. Letters, numbers, illustrations from old schoolbooks, and historical citations are symbolic forms of the artist’s dream trip through a manipulated past. In his more recent “image paintings,” these combinations and chance arrangements on nearly monochromatic grounds create a definite dreamlike image-play/wordplay.

Byron combines numbers, fragments of body parts, pieces of clothing, and scraps of elements from the unconscious. Each image is isolated from the others, but constructed, layered, and combined, as in Petit Nap, 1991, they evoke secret, seemingly immanent truths. These floating fragments can also be read and understood as dream interpretations: while the contours of the individual elements are clearly defined, the plot and background remain elusive. Petit Nap is an example of the visions Byron’s works evoke where the simultaneity of fiction and reality overrides any historical distance. Past and present are aligned in a real/irreal relationship. Although all the individual works are separate from one another, collectively they are meant to tell a moralizing or idealizing story with the help of historically tinged figurative elements. These narratives can range from a fairy tale to a mystery, but because they are almost contradictory, they do not leave us with a sense of detailed explanation or summarizable plot. Byron’s combinations of nonlinear fragments give the viewer clues to the artist’s inner logic. Still, they provide no key for an unequivocal deciphering of his multilayered images. Due to their fragmentary nature, they emerge as something both present and absent, and disappear into a bluish, monochromatic background.

Like the figurative combinations, the background is shaped by chance, by drops of water and paint that mottle the surface. Here, too, layers of uncertainties and ambiguities are produced. The hazy and playful illusionistic stage sets in the backgrounds heighten the impression of transitoriness and the melancholy associated with it. At the same time, Byron’s drawings and paintings create a scenario for Mephistopheles’ statement in Goethe’s Faust I, “I am the spirit of eternal negation! And right it is so, for all things that are created truly deserve to fall to ruin; thus it were better for nothing ever to be created.”

Frank-Alexander Hettig

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.