thoughts on my recent works

2007 – Thoughts on My Recent Works
Alison Byrnes

For my current thesis work, “The History of the World (according to Alison Byrnes):  Phase 2b,” a title conveniently broad to allow almost anything to occur within it, I looked for historical themes that peoples and cultures have in common across time and space.  I am investigating the dueling notions that history is either cyclic or telic.  Similar events occur over and over again throughout human history, such as civil war, which suggests that history is cyclic.  At the same time, specific individuals and events compose the larger event.  Like a fingerprint, no two civil wars are alike.

Here, time is represented by the levels within the houses, with the conflict furthest removed by time, the Peloponnesian War, in the basement, and the most recent, the American Civil War, in the attic.  In the case of the three Roman civil wars represented, time also moves from edges to center.  Thus the wars build upon each other chronologically.  Each event occurs within its own compartmentalized space, but, as a unified whole, function as one event through their visual simultaneity.  Things like civil wars, that is, political events, form the bulk of the kind of history taught in childhood because these events serve to inculcate the new members of society, children, into the group identity and ideology.  These events form the canon of pop-history – history that everyone has an inking of, has heard of, and may have visual impressions of through text-book photographs and television documentaries.  This recognizability forms a new bond between me (with the painting as a surrogate for me), and the viewer.

“Couples,” sometimes known as “Famous Couples,” is another test of whether there is such a thing as a “universal” in history.  Is history just repeating itself?Here, again, the answer is both “yes” and “no.”  The basic idea of a couple is portrayed across millennia (from the fourteenth century BC to the twentieth century AD), but is complicated by the stories of the individuals within their “hotel rooms.”  Not every couple is just two, for instance.

This painting  serves both as a narrative and a chronicle.  The linear progression of time moves chronologically from left to right, then right to left, from bottom to top.  Each compartment has narrative qualities, especially if a viewer knows the characters and can fill in the rest of the story from the single scene serving as its placeholder.  At the same time, the structure of the grid as compositional device reflects that the figures within also serve as a simple list of famous couples in history.

The figures within this painting represent a simple name chain.  This mix of characters, brought together because of a surface attribute such as their name, examines whether historical people and events (that is, all people and events) really are connected (by no more than “six degrees of separation”).  At the same time, the connection made between these people reflects the artificiality of historical associations and categories. Eleanor of Aquitaine may not want to be categorized as having anything in common with Ted Bundy.  Similarly, people today, and historically, are grouped together because of shared surface characteristics, such as race, gender, or nationality.

“Farm and Factory” is an instance of a serendipitous mistake.  I started a painting, to take place on a rolling farmscape, abandoned the project, returned to the same panel and drew another painting on top of it, and then decided to use both as a layered composition.  I plan to try this technique again in future works.

I created a set of dioramas because I became interested in the history of museum exhibits through my work at a museum and intense study of them through the Museum Studies Program.  The “politics of display” are under heated debate right now, as native people ask that dioramas of them and their ancestors be taken off of display, especially in Natural History museums, where they are the only people exhibited, along with the flora and fauna of the “natural world.”   People involved in this debate often ask, “why aren’t Europeans put on display as natural specimens as well?”  I created a display of Anglo-Americans in order to explore this issue, as well as learn the dying craft of miniature-diorama building.  I also see these dioramas as a search for the “limit” of painting, as they resemble my paintings in their compartmentalization, resemblance to a stage-set, and repetition.  I address issues here that I have presented previously in paintings – that historical accounts differ depending on the agenda of the source, and that even seemingly objective events are subjective after all.  Here, sources from the United States government, conspiracy theorists, and the Federal Bureau of Zombies and Vampires are flattened and treated as equals, reflecting the origin of each from the Internet.


Painting as possession

“Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.  More than that:  the chance, the fate, that suffuse the past before my eyes are conspicuously present…” (Benjamin 60).

 “For inside him there are spirits, or at least little genii, which have seen to it that for a collector – and I mean a real collector, a collector as he ought to be – ownership is the most intimate relationship he can have to objects.  Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them” (Benjamin 67).

My paintings, for me, as their creator, are a means of possessing what is contained in them.  I collect historical figures and places by painting them.

One of my first series, before I had ever considered myself “an artist” were cut-outs of masterpieces of mid-century furniture.  I felt compelled to make these because I was immersed in the study of mid-century design, and had great appreciation for these forms that I could only experience as they were not meant to be experienced, through slides or images in books.  I visited the local Herman Miller store and the mid-century interiors resale shop, but I could not even afford a knock-off of a knock-off.  My unrequited admiration for George Nelson’s Marshmallow Sofa and Arne Jacobsen’s Swan Chair could only be met by the time I could spend reproducing them pictorially.  (I recall also, as a five-year-old child making a Pac-Man game entirely out of paper, which was fully intended to simulate playing the video game [and failed]).  I get to know all of these historical figures and yet never really get to know them – they were gone before an inkling of my existence could have ever been perceived.  My relationship to the people of history about whom I read, and who I “get to know,” is terribly one-sided.  I know them but they can never know me.  Making fulfills the impulse to ownership of that which cannot be owned.