New York

Michael Byron

Elga Wimmer Gallery

In Michael Byron’s recent exhibition, two candles, in the shape of life-sized busts cast in paraffin, each faced a series of elegant gray-on-black “drip” paintings. On these paintings, typographic collage translates each dribble and squiggle into some psychological “moment”—“lust,” “laziness,” “substance abuse,” “fate,” “enlightenment,” “inner peace.” In a companion exhibition in Paris, Byron presented an installation entitled, Search6: Le Tableau d’Amsterdam 1992–93, which indicated that’ as a whole, his new work is about translation: the translation of paint into language, of a squiggle into a signifier, of an object into it representation.

Byron’s works linger like complicated, multitextured brain-teasers. Close in spirit to the light bulb drawn over a cartoon-figure’s head, the candle-busts turn the Enlightenment’s belief in subject-centered reason into a visual pun. Each entitled The Viewer, 1993, these busts underline Byron’s examination of the relationship between the viewer and the work, of just how a squiggle in paint becomes something more: how a painting becomes personally expressive at the same time that it becomes a culturally significant statement. With his version of drip painting, Byron summons the ghost of Jackson Pollock (and, by association, the ghosts of the critics who recognized and elevated his work to cultural prominence). But the specific critical issues associated with Pollock’s painting are evoked by Byron’s series, entitled “Psychological Charts,” 1993, in such a way as to call them into question. They’re not Clement Greenberg riffs on the expressivity of abstraction, rather, they make quite literal connections between each drip and particular, often fatuous, psychological states such as “fear of success,” “bullshit,” “vacuity.”

In their careful “charting” of unconscious fears and desires onto specific daubs of paint, these paintings make a mockery of the supposedly instinctual drives captured in Abstract Expressionist painting. What they fail to take into account is that their esthetic appeal derives in part from a way of looking shaped by that very tradition. Byron makes beautiful dribbles, and his sophisticated choice of brownish-orange paint looks perfectly stunning against the black background and the gray drips: stare at them a while and you begin to think you’re looking into deep space, at some strange galaxy where stars run together in streams—entering the space of the unconscious that these works are meant to close off or at least foreground as a hopelessly artificial conceit. You’re brought back to earth, of course, by all those interfering funny words (“domestic chaos,” “code of ethics,” “shelf-life”). Finally, these works raise more questions than they answer, eliding, perhaps, the most interesting problem of all: the gray area created by translating an esthetic object into a critical treatise.

Justin Spring