Dean Byington: Theory of Machines
Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles
May 19 - June 30, 2017
By SHANA NYS DAMBROT, JUN. 2017
Dean Byington’s suite of large-scale mixed media paintings channel the fantastical precision of centuries-old etchings and a vigilant appreciation for minute cartographic detail, like a Thomas Guide of the Grand Tour. These epic drawing/collage/oil transfer works on linen take years to imagine and execute, merging source materials with invention to create an archeology of facades with shades of Albrecht Durer, Terry Gilliam, and MC Escher. A foundation of patient, black and white, engraving-inflected drawing is augmented at various points by silkscreen, computer scan graphics, oil painting, scraping, and varnishing, achieving a profound, operatic feat of scale, density, and clarity.
Byington’s surrealism is that of dreams and memories, with an internal logic that unifies Eastern and Western antiquity, the consequences of climate change, the engineering of urban sprawl, and the limited role of culture in making sense of the soul- and soil-crushing weight of all that civilization. Each composition is an orderly riot of sinkholes and scaffolding, landmarks and landfills, byzantine streets and broad palace grounds, bridges and buttresses and bulwarks, chasms and crevasses, mountains and funeral mounds, cages and caves. Like the environmental backgrounds of Renaissance paintings were emptied and left to go feral inside Second Life, Byington favors the recurring motif of stage sets and easel paintings. This is itself a Neo-Classical technique, creating art within art as a self-reflexive metaphor for witnessing illusion. The paintings look like the exploration epics of painters like Caspar David Friedrich and Albert Bierstadt, denoting grandeur of another kind than the post-human labyrinth of all around -- the alive kind of grandeur. But of course, it is all an illusion.
Each of the works has its own distinct character, much like the cities and nation-states they mimic. “Theory of Machines (Grand Saturn)” demonstrates the most centrality of focus on the facade/stage set motif, placing a scene of a theatrical milieu at the certain center of the entire picture, artworks in various stages of completion breaking the grid of the Ozymandian city planning. A mammoth engine block, like the very Moloch’s innards writhing under the floorboards, fills the subterranean foreground. “Minarets” shows a fairly flat land, endlessly subdivided and punctuated with a broad smattering of towers, monuments, skyscrapers; “The New City #2” features structures ensconced in wooden scaffolding that seems to half float, cantilevered into open sky, almost like science fiction cities. Works like “The Black Sun” and others offer a motif of a tiered excavation, a great, stepped hole dug down into the earth, with the mixed flavors of industry and archeology. “Mir II” has a continental chasm of a sheer rock cliff; it’s very Game of Thrones, the way the huge masonry wall edges up to the abyss, toward the viewer, threatening vertigo -- and beyond it lies is the great terror of nothing to be known. WM
Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Downtown LA. She is the Arts Editor for the LA Weekly, and a contributor to Flaunt, Art and Cake, Artillery, and Palm Springs Life.
She studied Art History at Vassar College, writes essays for books and catalogs, curates and juries a few exhibitions each year, is a dedicated Instagram photographer and author of experimental short fiction, and speaks at galleries, schools, and cultural institutions nationally. She is a member of ArtTable and the LA Press Club, and sits on the Boards of Art Share-LA and the Venice Institute of Contemporary Art, the Advisory Council of Building Bridges Art Exchange, and the Brain Trust of Some Serious Business.
Photo of Shana Nys Dambrot by Osceola Refetoff
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