John Byrne Sitting Ducks

14 June – 19 October, Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

1-29 November, Inverness Museum & Art Gallery.

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John Byrne American Boy (Oil on Plywood, 1971).

I recently attended a talk by James Hall at the Inverness Book Festival promoting his latest work; The Self Portrait, A Cultural History and emerged incredibly incensed and frustrated. Much like the proliferation of selfies all over the net, the scope of the talk amounted to scratching at surfaces, the emphasis on narcissism, costumed props and the artist displaying their genius. When I look at a Rembrandt self-portrait I don’t see an artist proclaiming his genius to the world, although artistic genius is certainly present. What brings people to his work time and again is its honesty and humanity. The artist painted himself unrelentingly warts and all, vulnerable, aging and fallible. It is a face onto which we may project ourselves. What makes Rembrandt great is that in the self-portrait he transcends time and himself, he communicates the universality of human experience. To look at Albrecht Dürer’s famous self portrait of 1500 and see only a Christ- like figure completely misses the complexity and contradiction of the image. When I saw this work in Munich a few years ago after a lifetime seeing it in reproduction, what struck me most was the intimacy of scale and expression. It is invested with tremendous subtlety, a face conveying age in spite of youth and myriad of expression. The artist’s hand points resoundingly to the centre of his chest. It’s the ultimate “I am” statement by any artist or human being in any century, an image of self-determination and self -possession, resolute and uncompromising. Equally Dürer’s eyes communicate a deep sadness and knowing of the limitations of what it is to be human. It is simultaneously an image of divine aspiration and earth bound mortality, timeless in relevance.

When I had the pleasure of seeing John Byrne’s exhibition Sitting Ducks at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery this week I also perceived an artist and a man, acutely aware of what complex and contradictory beings we are, both to ourselves and to each other. Typically Byrne caricatures himself in many of his self-portraits, he isn’t about celebrating himself but revealing all that we are by default. Some of the most beautiful works in the exhibition are also the most uneasy, ambiguous and unflattering.

In an early work Self Portrait with Red Palette (Oil and Acrylic on Plywood, 1974/5) Byrne’s flawless composition is matched with uncertainty. The diptych is an expanded space of vivid turquoise, the artist pushed into the right panel, steadfastly meeting the viewer’s gaze, red palette in one hand, cigarette in the other. The shadow cast by the figure is mirrored by the shadow of a black palette on the floor like another self, the edge of the palette disappearing tonally like the elusive nature of the painter’s art. A later work Self Portrait on White (Oil on Board, 2012) shows the artist pushed to the bottom of the frame, with what feels like a dead weight of white ground above. It is an image of self and of the human condition of aging, confrontational in its honesty, the exposure of white revealing strength, resilience and ultimate frailty.

John Byrne - Self Portrait on white

Self Portrait on White (Oil on Board, 2012).

In Self Portrait in Camouflage Jacket (2001) the artist’s face is emotionally in shadow, eyes rolled back heavenwards, two palettes hung round his neck like dog tags.  A white palette hangs in front while the other black, rectangular and smeared with paint hangs behind it, the whole image infused with conflict and vulnerability. The camouflage pattern merges with the recurrent motif of thorns, a snake coiled round the artist’s arm, his hand upturned in the foreground as if begging the viewer for human recognition. A pen pierces the artist’s breast, a tear in the flesh like the open wound of a confessional canvas, an internalised, psychological war being waged at cost to the individual. Awareness demanding its price. Byrne’s Self Portrait (Oil on Canvas, 1988) depicts a moment of reflection and distortion which lies at the heart of all portraiture, playing with certainties of self, painted object and genre in Magritte-like fashion in Ceci n’est pas un Auto PortraitThis is Not a Self Portrait (mixed Media on Paper 2003).

In his portraits Byrne demonstrates dazzling sensitivity and superb draughtsmanship. John With Saxophone (The Artist’s Son), (Graphite and Pencil on Paper, 1986), Celie Watching Television (the Artist’s Daughter), (Pastel on Paper, 1972) and Portrait of Honor, 19 May, (Pastel on Paper, 2001) are particularly fine examples. Standing in a dress of soft pink the watchful stare of the artist’s daughter feels like a person in the process of becoming, the outlines of her feet and large shoes spilling into the viewer’s space at the edge of the picture frame. It is a deeply personal and universal image of innocence and recognition. Has she just stopped crying? We can’t be certain, but we can see and feel a growth of awareness, a shift in perception- in the artist, the subject and in the mind of the viewer.

John Byrne - Honor

Portrait of Honor, 19 May (Pastel on Paper, 2001)

A Pair of Drawings; Honor and Monkey (Artist’s Daughter) and Xavier and Cat (Artist’s Son) (Watercolour and Crayon on Paper, 1999) return to a naïve handling of the figure seen in American Boy (Oil on Plywood, 1971). Both children are doll like, in oversized oriental costumed dress, half pyjamas, half ceremonial, flanked by hostile animals baring their teeth directly at the viewer’s gaze. As an image of childhood there is primitivism in the stage of development and in the treatment of the figure, the personalities of both children still being formed subject to immature, instinctual drives and emotions. They are fascinating drawings with a wealth of associations and ambiguities, lovingly observed in all their truth. The same may be said of Janine With Flowers (The Artist’s Wife) (Oil on Canvas, 2010) a Kahloesque vision where roses and thorns equally define the sitter.

Coinciding with Sitting Ducks at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Dead End at Bourne Fine Art, Dundas St, Edinburgh until 1st September celebrates Byrne’s prolific work and his unique, evolving iconography. In The Huntsman and the Snowy Owl (Casein on Paper) the figure appears blinded by the moon, pushed to the edge of the image, trying to see. Acidic yellow light illuminates the hollows of the uneven ground on which he stands, framed by a signature cloud and a bare, thorn like tree, at once brutal and poetic. In Big Selfie (Casein on Paper) Byrne’s age and experience are written in the hollows of his eyes, his still quizzical hair and smoke from his cigarette drawing elusive forms in the air. Unlike most selfies the image isn’t composed to flatter or project the ego of its maker for viral mass consumption. At 74 Byrne continues to do what he has always done, peering into the core of ourselves.

Short film introduction to the John Byrne Sitting Ducks exhibition featuring works referenced above:

 http://www.nationalgalleries.org/whatson/exhibitions/john-byrne/john-byrne-film

All images and film link by kind permission of the National Galleries of Scotland.

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