Every First Thursday we meet at the Café Vita before making the rounds of several galleries around Pioneer Square after which we try to revive our reduced spirits at the Green Leaf, or World Pizza in the International District. We’re all artists with advanced degrees, shows and teaching experience and yet seldom can we embrace the juvenile, superficial stuff decorating the walls of most local galleries. For their art walks everybody else is all hip in tight pants, tattooed, colored hair, striped socks and small-brimmed hats sipping Two Buck Chuck, talking and texting, as we shuffle obligatorily from one gallery and cluster of open studios to the next, trying to understand why this thing we have passionately dedicated our lives to has become so incomprehensibly stupid.
Insignificanza seems to be a global art phenomenon. I spent a year in Italy recently hanging around a bunch of young artists and if you think Italy has any sort of art renaissance going on let me disabuse you of all such foolishness right now. Not one of about two dozen scooter riding, cigarette-smoking, three-day-bearded, tight tee shirted, leather-jacketed, espresso-sipping artists I hung around with had any notion of art that extended further than the end of his sciarpa blowing in the wind behind his Vespa. Un gruppo di spettacolo was the “in” thing and once in the group show you just made something, anything, a few days before the opening, showed up at the party and bragged about your next show in Berlin or Bern or Boston. As Kenneth Clark was wont to say, a significant work of art can only be achieved with a significant intention by the artist. Does Jeff Koons have a significant intention? The problem of course is that art is about life, experience, observation, introspection, understanding, empathy and expression. Sometimes as Brecht said, it is a “hammer” with which to shape society. Sometimes art is autobiographical, political or a personal rendering of nature. Nobody knows exactly what art is, except that before everything else, art is a way of life, not a way to “get a life.”
So then one Thursday evening our art-gang walks into Greg Kucera and all the past unhappy Thursdays vanish almost instantly as we look around the front room with the kind of joy that is only possible after one has been trapped beneath the ice for several seconds only to finally break through to fresh air. Actual adult art is on the walls! At first, we are suspicious and wonder if there might not be some gimmick concealing the usual inconsequentiality but a cursory assessment reveals a body of work made with the same devotion that we love in Rembrandt, Goya, Lautrec, Munch, Wyeth, Shahn, Rivera and Hopper. So… what, are we a bunch of stodgy philistines who can’t dig (post) modern art?
The painting of David Byrd goes back fifty or sixty years. The guy has been painting most of his life in a small town in upstate New York and we have never heard of him; he reminds me of Pierre Bonnard down there in Le Cannet painting his wife and flowers over and over oblivious of two world wars and a whole bunch of “isms”. David Byrd worked in the psychiatric ward of the Veterans Administration hospital in Montrose, New York for thirty years without a single show. He simply lived to paint. As he has said, “Painting is all about observation and experience. You have to see the details…” And boy, does he see the details!
Personally, I could not spend even a whole day in an insane asylum much less thirty years. Robert Schumann couldn’t even live in the same town as such an institution, fearing premonitorily, that he would end up in just such a place. I see a movie about a psychopath and I am that guy. But David Byrd went back day after day to help clean, feed, clothe and give succor to the soldiers of WWII, Korea and Viet Nam and then go home every night and paint.
The paintings on the south wall are mostly geometric, semi-abstract shapes with only occasional figures but two stand out in my memory, both of the Hudson River Bridge at Bear Mountain across which Mr. Byrd had to drive to work and back every day. First of all, bridges always remind me of Gauguin asking where are we from and where are we going? Every day David Byrd drove across the Hudson River at Anthony’s Nose from the reality of bucolic tranquility to the reality of emotional terror. And then, looking at these two bridge paintings we see that Byrd wonders every time he crosses this bridge if he will get to where he is going as the road disappears into the side of the mountain with sort of de Chirico-like evanescence.
Along the north wall of the gallery’s front room are all portraits. Mr. Byrd was an orderly and he did not even have time to make sketches of the patients. This is one of the things that make his work so astonishing, his capacity to go home and remember with such poignancy the tiniest detail from ten hours earlier. Robert Henri, one of the sternest exponents of non-photographic memory painting would have loved David Byrd. Patient Protecting Himself, Agonized, Toilet Scene, Man Giving a Light all reveal the uniqueness of Byrd’s observational integrity. Nurse and Patient reminds me of Nurse Ratched in Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I forget whether Mildred Ratched was, in fact, physically bigger than McMurphy but she was definitely very large in our minds terrified by her insensate monstrosity. In Byrd’s painting the nurse is several inches taller than the patient and she definitely looks like a ward commander with her stahlhelm hair-do and intimidating loins as she holds the poor man’s hand looking away revulsed by her pitiable infantile patient and her own life’s circumstances. Anybody who has ever set foot in a mental hospital knows that one’s sense of reality ceases to be a guide for what one sees.
As John Hull told his painting students at Yale over and over, “all painting begins with illustration” and notwithstanding Hull’s remark; Byrd’s figures transcend illustration in their remembered sincerity and poignancy. The difference between illustration and art is that the illustrator wants to please while the artist could “give a shit,” what anybody thinks, to paraphrase Courbet.
What strikes one immediately about Byrd’s paintings is the consistent use of neutrals; gray, raw sienna vaporous tones that suck one in like a Max Sebald anecdote, at first benign, seeming to speak about some regular chap in East Anglia, England teaching his classes, walking the dales, reading Elliott and having tea and crumpets only to find out from some obscure letter that he found recently among his grandfather’s things that his name is not Daffyd Elias but Jacque Austerlitz and that his parents had put him on a boat bound for England in Hamburg in 1937. That is when everything turns muted and vague in a miasma of reluctant acceptance of suspected truth. Most of the people in Byrd’s paintings are no longer “all there” to use an academic expression. The muted tones evoke the ghostlike character of the walking wounded; they were once happy kids like the rest of us, once students and lovers like the rest of us, once teachers, doctors and lawyers like the rest of us…but after Omaha Beach, the Bulge, Berlin, Messina, Abruzzo, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, they are now imprisoned in their own private incarcerations of paranoia, fear, self-loathing and perpetual anxiety while they shower, smoke, play cards, fight, orgy and cower in cement halls behind locked doors forgotten by the people they fought to save from the tyrannies of fascism and Communism.
But the other thing about Byrd’s neutral palette is that he spent two years studying art at the Ozenfant Academy in New York. Amedee Ozenfant, it must be remembered, along with Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (Le Corbusier), founded the ism of purity known as “purism” in the second decade of the Twentieth Century as something of a riposte to the strident demands of cubism. Ozenfant himself first began painting in watercolor and pastel and later, in numerous articles he stated, color was secondary to form. He would eventually revise his earlier color theories, but a cursory look at his oeuvre suggests a lifelong preference for a neutral palette.
Patient’s Dream is the quintessential purist painting; the large building and angular hillside form a dark, menacing abstract shape from which a lone figure runs to escape. Byrd probably witnessed this sort of scene many times but of course the painting is purely imaginary. I think of Hopper, Wyeth and a touch of Shahn as I look at this painting. In most of Byrd’s paintings the figure assumes a larger place but in Patient’s Dream Byrd is clearly exercising a Kafkaesque horror of the huge, menacing bureaucracy we call government. We are all that poor devil fleeing an Orwellian nightmare.
One of my favorite paintings in the show is Making A Bed In Coal Country. In the upper right corner is a cheesy Christ-like image facing out of the frame. On the left side is a window through which we see the fender of a Chevrolet automobile parked at the curb. Central in the image is the back of a woman making a bed on which a large Colt revolver lies on the rumpled sheets. Curiously, this remarkable painting remains one of the few unsold works in the whole show, probably because it is so disturbing. I talked with Mr. Byrd about this painting and asked specifically about the gun and he said, more or less like Rousseau replied to queries about his couch in the jungle, “Well, I just felt like putting it there.” I remember being surprised when my photography mentor, Jerry Uelsmann, told me that he doesn’t give a thought to the symbolism in his work; he just puts the images together and lets the viewer do the interpreting. Three fifths of all gun deaths in the United States are suicides.
Another favorite of mine (favorites are elusive among such a cornucopia) is Casket For Sale (1989). The foreground is dominated by the backs of eight heads of people mesmerized by a hulking Asian auctioneer’s assistant thrusting a toy casket at them while, in the upper right the auctioneer sits on a stool shouting, “An whado I get for dis genuine heirloom toy casket ladies and gentlemen, poifec for your jewelry, nobody ever suspec ha ha…c’mon, c’mon forty-five, forty-five… who’ll gimmee fifty, c’mon fifty, fifty, dis ting belonged to Yakib Grossinger hisself…fifty…once…twice, do I hear fifty, that sucker in the back with the stupid hat says fifty, who’ll gimmee sixty, c’mon, sixty, sixty, sixty goin once, sixty going twice… sixty! SOLD to da goyim in da back for sixty dollas”. This is probably just a rural estate sale auction but Byrd could easily be commenting on the frenzied art market of the 80’s, which, it could be argued, might just be the worst decade of American art ever; thank god it is now in a casket someplace.
David Byrd’s paintings are nothing if not deliberate. An exception is Dormitory Orgy. I was attracted to this painting very much when I first saw it, partly because I could not figure out what was going on even though I could see some kinds of shapes here and there, but it wasn’t until I had looked all around the gallery and came back and finally read the title that I realized what it is about and why it is painted with such uncharacteristic, large, wanton flourishes. Meditative, deliberate painter that he is Byrd surpassed himself in Orgy. It is clearly one of the more frightening paintings in the show. I don’t even want to think about what is actually happening in all those swirls, blown-up pillows, and piles of bodies and screams of hellish despair.
I think what we admire about David Byrd is his unabated love of humanity. He is a little guy who probably discovered early on that his destiny lay more along the sidelines than up the middle of the field. He is the quintessential observer. But for a momentary hiccup by the “great architect” we could all be subjects for a David Byrd painting. District Attorney, Patient Protecting Himself, Waiter, Suicide, Laundromat, Dishwasher, Orgy, Two Women Talking …these are us. Henri Cartier Bresson, the painter-turned-photographer said, “As far as I am concerned, painting is a means of understanding which cannot be separated from other means of visual expression. It is a way of shouting, of freeing oneself, not of proving or asserting originality. It is a way of life.”