By ANTHONY PATRICK CERRETANI, NOV. 2015
Jason Alexander Byers is a soft-spoken and polite man - always choosing his words carefully and holding the doors for others entering a building. For Jason, his prime method of expression is through his artwork, culminating this fall with a solo exhibition of his newest series at Garis & Hahn in Manhattan. Anthony Patrick Cerretani – a writer, philosopher, painter and musician – is a friend of the artist and sat down with Jason Alexander Byers for a chat, leading up to his opening on November 19th.
Anthony Patrick Cerretani: How did you get into birds in the first place?
JAB: Well, it was similar to how I got into painting skyscrapers, just being around them and finding that inspiration. When I was living in Pittsburgh and it was going through a renaissance, I just watched the skyline get built up around me. It was similar with birds – every summer I’d go up to my grandparents’ place an hour north of Pittsburgh, and they had a bird feeder that attracted all these song birds. I would just sit at the window and watch them all, birds of all different colors, and that fascination with birds has stuck with me.
APC: You take these birds that often have brilliant colors, and make them monochromatic with tar – what made you decide to go that route?
JAB: It’s something that evolved from my tar paintings of skyscrapers. Using materials that are untraditional has always appealed to me, because I’m not a painter. For me, using a material like tar gets me closer to sculpture, where I started out. A lot of my work is monochromatic because I don’t see color as much as I see texture.
APC: Interesting, so texture is more important to you on the visual side of things. I see why you would be drawn to use tar.
JAB: It also came out of the images I saw of birds covered in oil after BP spilled in the gulf, and researching which birds were harmed the most from that. The first birds I painted in tar were arranged like targets, similar to my screen prints. For a long time I stuck to doing symmetrical pieces, but I had enjoyed painting the skylines and churches asymmetrically so I wanted to try the same thing with the birds. With both series, I like how they come out looking like maps, with all the jagged edges. But I keep the eyes simple, just perfect circles, and that connects back to the targets.
APC: Seems like it’s a natural sort of evolution from one series to the other, it’s your own aesthetics along with a research process on these subjects pulled from your life experience.
JAB: Yeah, and the research process might be the most fun part. That’s when I just close the door and zone out, focusing in on whatever I’m doing next. Sometimes I’ll have clippings all over my wall and if anyone happens to stop by, they tend to step back and scratch their head in disbelief.
APC: It’s clear there’s a lot of thought behind it, that you’re very invested in the work. Are there other artists you look to for inspiration?
JAB: I would say Lee Bontecou’s steel & canvas sculptures were a big inspiration. Nancy Grossman’s leather head sculptures. Louise Bourgeois, Kenneth Noland, Victor Vasarely, early Frank Stella...
APC: So you have the influence of untraditional materials, and the geometrical side that comes through in your targets. Once you’re ready to get to work, how hard is it to actually make one of the tar paintings?
JAB: It’s a process, you know, I take my time on the research and doing drawings, studies with pens, and then once I figure out the pieces I want to paint, I basically just go into manufacturing mode, and bam, bam, bam! A one-man assembly line.
APC: Or like you’re a chef prepping the kitchen. Except the ingredients are a little more toxic... do you work on these outside because of the fumes?
JAB: I was working outdoors for a little bit, but the rain kept messing it up. One of them actually – it hadn’t rained for days, and out of nowhere a single raindrop comes down and lands directly in the center of one of the bird’s eyes. So that piece was ruined. It just wasn’t safe, I had to take it back inside.
APC: Do you think you’re going to stick with using untraditional materials in your work going forward?
JAB: I’ve been messing around with paint here and there, just because I never really have, but I’ve been working with tar for a long time now and I don’t plan on stopping. Even when I was getting sick from the fumes, I was like, “I can’t have this – this is what I do!”
APC: There was no moment where you wanted to give up and walk away from the tar. Do you think it relates to your environment as well – living here in the city?
JAB: Definitely. When I rediscovered tar as a medium after several years away from it, I was standing in the middle of a street and I noticed a church down the street that caught my eye. Then I looked down and realized I was standing on freshly
paved tar, somewhere on First Avenue I think, and it just kind of hit me in that moment.
APC: You never know when that spark will hit you.
JAB: Yeah. The city influences me in so many ways though. I keep very busy, I’m constantly moving. And I think being in this environment helps me continue to do that nonstop. Just to look out my bedroom window and see the Chrysler Building –
that’s a dream come true. So I don’t really see myself anywhere else. WM
Anthony Cerretani is a self-taught visual artist, musician, and avid conversationalist. He grew up in the finger lake region of New York in the village of Waverly. Currently, he lives in Brooklyn, painting and making music that he hopes will inspire others of all ages to keep creating and living the life you love.
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