There is a fortunate collector of modernist and contemporary art that has been privileged to purchase some monumental works of art. On the walls of his private collection, he boasts abstract paintings by the likes of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Joe Byrne.
You may or may not have heard of the artist Joe Byrne, but you have probably heard of the other two artists I mentioned. Following this line of reasoning – if Joe Byrne’s art can happily hang beside paintings created by two of America’s arguably greatest painters that stemmed from the Modernist Art Movement, then Byrne’s work must be pretty great as well…right?
For those that are unfamiliar with Joe Byrne, I will attempt to make some introductions:
–A local master of portraying deeply detailed, panoramic landscapes of South Carolina’s Low Country. That is Joe Byrne.
–The creator of nearly countless and detailed wildlife etchings and illustrations for anything from gilded books to consumer publications. That is Joe Byrne.
–The genius behind possibly the most evocative modern-realist industrial scenes that have been created since Charles Sheeler’s 1927 commissions for The Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge Plant. Again, that is Joe Byrne.
In addition, Byrne has mastered delicate watercolor images depicting subjects taken from nature and styled in the manner of Georgia O’Keefe. Also, dramatic, colossal, cubist canvases depicting abstracted boat-engines and richly textured oil paintings of marshlands. And he is also responsible for creating recognizable storefront signs, commercial logos, advertisements, “The Body Firm” video backdrops, stage sets, photography, kitchen interior design, mosaic tiling… Byrne, Byrne, Byrne!
There is seemingly no limit to what this Columbia artist can do, or what he has already done. Nevertheless, Joe Byrne has seemingly remained under the radar, and he is somewhat largely unrecognized for his great skills in employing a vast variety of artistic styles and media – despite the apparent and exceptional qualities presented by many aspects of his encyclopedic body of work.
Meeting Joe Byrne and visiting his West Columbia studio can best be described as the artistic equivalent of watching a Barnum & Bailey Three Ring Circus. The Joe Byrne experience is only problematic in the sense that there is just so much going on at one time that it is extremely difficult to choose a single aspect to focus your attention upon. This observation can potentially leave the unsuspecting visitor with a memory full of overwhelming and indescribable sensations, and a head that has been set in spins.
At the circus, audience members may be faced with the need to choose between watching an agile trapeze artist take death defying leaps, or experiencing an exotic tiger leaping through a ring of fire, simultaneously with a juggling acrobat balancing on a pivoting ball as he breathes fire from his mouth while still balanced on the head of another man that may be swallowing a sword… If you can by chance imagine just how difficult it may be to decide where to look in such a situation, then you may somewhat understand how difficult it is for me to find words adequate to describe Joe Byrne and his art.
Byrne possesses a deeply fascinating life history, a vaguely inexplainable residence, a widely varied and contrasting résumé of employment, many passions, a highly intriguing personality, and so many fascinating stories it is almost impossible to decide what aspect of Joe Byrne that I should concentrate on first.
To start with, please try to imagine an artist that paints with the skill and dedication of an old master, and speaks with a blended Brooklyn and Southern accent. This artist should have his long grey hair pulled back into a pony-tail and should be wearing jeans streaked by a variety of brightly-colored paints. He should ride a motorcycle and have a tendency to display a wonderfully eccentric (yet highly productive) case of ADD, and possibly OCD. He must be at the same time very earnest, honest, realistic, kind of shy, selectively quiet or pensive, and always very sincere. If you can imagine that artist, then you may be able to achieve a sense of Joe Byrne, and his character.
Byrne as a personality alone is fascinating in several respects; however it seems most important to understand the sensibility behind Byrne’s art before it can be remotely possible to achieve true understanding of the man himself. Byrne’s personality and personal history have continually been so interconnected and co-dependent on the art that he produces that it therefore seems impossible to separate the man from the work.
Byrne has been continually inspired to create art by the world that surrounds him and diligently uses his art to describe what he sees. Byrne is an Artist with a capital ‘A’ and a Painter with a capital ‘P’ and proves these titles with the very classical and disciplined manner in which he works and the impressive catalogue that he has so far produced.
Byrne’s West Columbia residence is emblematic of his classical working methods and all of the technical knowledge and understanding he possesses for creating art. At once I am taken aback by his amazingly varied, impressive, and substantial collection of original artworks and photography on display at his studio and home.
Still I am further amazed when I discover that 99% of his display consists of his own works of art. At first it seems impossible that one artist could generate so many opposing styles of art. Byrne’s art appears as not the work of a single artist, but that of several working across different mediums and several different periods of time.
Byrne, in fact, practically lives in a house made of paintings. This is not unusual for an artist, especially one that resides and works in his studio. What is unusual is the wide-ranging variety of genres, subject matter, and media that Byrne has visibly mastered to make-up this overwhelming display of his talent.
What is so impressive about his schizophrenic style for creation is that he has been able to produce so many quality pieces across so many differing artistic methods and means.
When I ask Byrne how it has been possible to learn so many different schools of art and why he has chosen to pursue so many contrasting and opposing artistic styles and techniques, but never settled on just one, I was told: “I have been around for 62 years and I jump around a lot!”
In usual circumstances I may be willing to accept this reasoning, but what is puzzling and amazing about Byrne’s stylistic “jumping” is the extent to which he involves himself in each practice, technique, and subject matter. He does not just flit from one painting to another to act on boredom, lack of interest or skill. “I fall in and out of love with my paintings, and then I go back to them”, he explained – although I can’t help to think that there is so much more to praise about the way in which he works.
There are many artists that are known for producing great masses of work, and then there are artists that are known for the quality of their work. However quantity of artwork is often produced at the expense of quality and there are few artists that are known for both throughout their career. Vermeer, for example, produced only 35 paintings that can be attributed to him throughout the duration of his career, but each piece recognized has been acclaimed for its outstanding qualities. Rembrandt (or the school of Rembrandt), although recognized as one of the greatest painters in Europe, produced thousands of paintings – but really only a few stand out for their greatness in comparison to the sheer volume of work produced.
What is striking about Byrne’s art is this: Despite the great abundance of his completed works, great value can be recognized within each individual piece regardless of it being so acutely different from the next.
The excellence of Byrne’s work across his many styles of creativity may be explained by his assumed artistic attitude and dedicated work-ethic that is enlisted for his every individual undertaking – from landscape painting to remodeling his own kitchen.
Byrne’s principles for working can be summarized by a self-imposed standard that he upholds: Before moving on to the next phase of his artistic journey, he must first feel safe that he has gained sufficient knowledge regarding everything that surrounds any given technique or subject he has planned to tackle.
Byrne has a somewhat obsessive thirst for knowledge and an inherent need to discover truth that must be satisfied before undertaking any new subject or media. Before he will even attempt to recreate a particular internal vision, he must first forensically investigate every aspect of what it is that he sees and how he intends to communicate it. Byrne’s meticulous methodology also includes endless note-taking and list-making throughout working on his art and when in the planning stage of his pieces. Byrne even admitted, “The next 10 years of my painting is already planned-out.” The artist’s extensive plan includes subjects he intends to paint and even includes the order in which he plans to paint them.
Byrne aims to depict each and every minute detail of his vision with expert knowledge and absolute truth. For example when he is painting a panoramic landscape he must first, through reality, experience the entire scene that he is going to depict. Whether this means walking the extent of a scene that he has set to capture, experiencing a full forest trail, scaling a mountain, following a stream, stumbling down a cliff, flying in a plane overhead, studying geology, and more: he carries out every thinkable and unthinkable means of research to achieve a highly informed understanding of the landscape at hand.
Byrne has a tendency to go to seemingly unbelievable and extreme measures to research and self-teach in order to prepare for pieces. He claims to do so to achieve a holistic understanding of his subjects before he feels comfortable that he can honestly replicate the world he sees in his work.
Visually describing all of his objectives with such acute realism and accuracy is a tireless act of excessive and obsessive dedication to always rendering Truth. To illustrate Byrne’s self-imposed regulations, the artist has recently been growing what he describes as ‘rust farms’ to allow him to accurately replicate the absolute look, feel, and texture of rust when including any metal or rusted subjects in his abstract industrial pieces.
Byrne excitedly revealed to me some ordinary wooden planks to which he had applied a sticky, gluey substance to the surfaces. These planks then get pressed against rusted surfaces of the variety of old metal objects that he keeps laying and strewn around his back yard. The entire process is for the purpose of creating ‘rust samples’ to be examined and studied in his studio so he can achieve an understanding of every aspect pertaining to the look of rust. This includes how rust forms, different variations in appearances and texture, differentiation between the formation of rust on different metals, ‘exploding rust’ which only appears through the surfaces of painted metal objects, rust that peels off attempts of painting in layers, rust that reveals itself though paint from underneath but never actually breaks through… During the course of our meeting I begin to feel that I am becoming well versed in the anatomy of rust as well. I find myself audibly contemplating in front of Columbia’s rust expert whether rust simply ‘explodes’ through the paint – because the metal intends to seize back its rightful, original appearance, aggressively casting off the color that it has unwillingly been forced to take? Perhaps the rust is exercising its supremacy and authority over covering layers of paint?
Byrne appeared enamored by my deep (and vaguely embarrassing) insight into the practice of rust-psychology and pointed out a particular area of one of his industrial paintings where there is an example of ‘bubbling rust’. Here, a portion of a boat’s metal surface takes on a bulbous texture where the boat captain had kept painting over and over the peeling paint pushed out by the force of underlying rust, but the rust just kept on bursting through. Despite my initial reservations, I have concluded that the nature of rust is indeed surprisingly fascinating, and I can empathize with Byrne’s fascination with it. I may eventually take the time to look into the vengeful tendencies inherent in rust and it’s uprising against the oppression of unnatural and stifling layers of paint.
Byrne’s enthusiasm for rust and metal objects does not end here by any means. After briefly sharing with me some of his Southern Landscape paintings, he proclaimed that he would now show me what he is “passionate about” and leads me to another room filled with giant canvases depicting powerful and imposing industrial compositions. This particular family of Byrne’s paintings currently includes storied ships, old and dilapidated train-car doors, and other industrial, metal objects that have fallen victim to nature’s elements.
“Locally, people like the landscapes. They seem to sell and they pay the bills…but this is my passion!” –Byrne exclaimed as we stand in front of “Bollard”, his unfinished abstract, modernistic, industrial oil-painting replicated from a photograph that he took while docked at a harbor in Red Hook, New York.
Boats and water are ever-present themes in Byrne’s art, partially inspired by his former boat-delivering career that allowed him to travel coast-to-coast in the United States. “Bollard” is a bright-yellow painted, light-bulb shaped, seemingly anonymous bulge of metal, bolted down to one of New York Harbor’s docks.
Byrne points to the parts of the painting which show how rust is able to peel off paint from the imposing metal bollard, and where the yellow paint has flaked off in layers from the original subject. The bulbous object is overshadowed by a large boat that exists outside the picture-plane, but its size and existence is only abstractly implied. The boat has been tied and bound to the bollard by hosiers that Byrne manipulates to create another central object.
In this room, I am particularly drawn to one of Byrne’s industrial paintings that bares an uncanny resemblance to my favorite Charles Sheeler painting created in 1929: “Upper Deck”. Sheeler (a noted Precisionist painter whose work was known to be supported by his skills as a photographer) meticulously depicted American rural and urban landscapes. He characterized his style by painting things that were hard, exact, flat, big, industrial, and full of exchanges with photography: exempting expressive strokes of paint, nature, and figures in his artworks as he believed that “process and product have replaced nature altogether”.
Joe Byrne’s “A Lifeboat and Davet”, also reminiscent of Sheeler’s works, is a huge, bluely-tinted painting that depicts a portion of the estimated 540 foot S.S. Majestic ship’s cleats that Byrne was a passenger on whilst following the east coast. Byrne formed the entire painting from layer-upon-layer of painted glazes that create such detail and realistic modeling that it looks as if he had instead squeezed oil straight from the paint tube onto the canvas.
Next, we go back to his landscape paintings (did I mention that Byrne “jumps around a lot”?) and I realize that these should really not be overlooked. The landscape paintings are brilliantly realistic and descriptive. Each painting depicts convincing scenes of the natural world: rich, dewy forestry so lush that I can virtually smell cedar; glistening, translucent bodies of water; winding streams that seem to audibly ripple, creating sounds of water droplets in my head.
When asked, Byrne reported that he does in-fact truly enjoy painting landscapes. He explained: “Otherwise I would have never painted them. Something has to hook me. I only can paint things that are interesting to me.” However, the artist has found recently that he mainly paints his more traditional scenes of nature out of necessity and “getting the bills paid”. Byrne, now semi-retired, aims to solely focus on his passion – the antithesis of his more-commonly-known charming and picturesque Southern scenes of nature – towards modern industrial landscapes. I cannot help but believe that what he says is the truth.
The significant value Byrne places on truthfulness can be applied and reflected through other areas in his life. He claimed that while in court it had once been remarked that he was the only witness to always give exactly the same deposition each time called to speak. “I always say the same thing,” he smiled. “What you say will always be the same if you don’t lie and if you only tell the truth.” And it is his consistent truthfulness, played out in his art, which is the one theme that I can follow and can use to connect all of the distinct elements that make up his body of work.
Truth is the one constant ingredient that brings his many contrasting pieces altogether. Truth and realism shine through Byrne’s art and also contribute to the sense of his overall classical discipline.
What I enjoy most about Byrne’s work is the way in which he treats the act of creating art. He treats artistic conception as a learned skill and believes that he is only able to create quality work as a result of his achievements in cultivating a particular craft. I like that Byrne sees all artists as craftsmen, and that he sees creating art is a result of carrying out styles, subjects, and techniques that – like sciences – can be learned and developed to achieve mastery; and that anyone has the ability to do so. Byrne explains that all of his accomplishments have resulted from extensive study and gaining understanding for a particular artistic craft.
Byrne, unlike artists such as Jackson Pollock, does not ground the value of his art in any discourse, nor does he attempt to relate his art to some sort of personal or internal vision. He doesn’t justify his artworks’ value by announcing his artistic gifts or his inherent artistic genius. Byrne’s ever-present modest and humble outlook is refreshing and invites respect, and is also as realistic as the works that he produces.
A great many artists, particularly those working in abstract or modernist styles, have a tendency to use their art to self-promote and make artworks all about themselves rather than the mediums. I enjoy how, by contrast, Byrne remains focused on his art and his studying of subjects and techniques. He animatedly talks in detail about his paintings rather than himself. Perhaps this is the reason for my initial assumption that he and his art are so intrinsically connected. For this reason, I am hopeful that when people are given real opportunity to see the extent of Byrne’s many different artworks and styles of working that they will recognize, like I did on the day of my visit to his West Columbia studio, all that Byrne has to offer as an artist and all the value that can be found in so many of his styles of painting – irrespective of whether they have heard of Byrne before.
I sincerely believe that, one day, art collectors will boast about their “Byrne’s” just as they do their “Rothko’s” or their “Pollock’s”.