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Strange Ritual / Stairway to Heaven


"Talking Pictures"
By Glen Helfland, San Francisco Bay Guardian, January 8, 1997

[…] Chair Quaternion is part of "Anima Mundi," a show at San Francisco Camerawork that explores the notion of the existence of a spirit inside inanimate objects. In the context of this group show, which features updated and urbanized Loteria cards by Luis Delgado Qualtrough and an ethereal installation about cloud reading by Mary Tsiongas (both from the Bay Area), Byrne's work takes on somewhat spiritual connotations.

"I find that's a pretty recurring theme that I didn't notice at first but began to see in my work after a while: that search for the definition of the sacred," he says. "By extension it's an attempt to understand what might be sacred in our modern world. Of course I don't have answers, but my work is a way of looking, trying to see the world through some kind of filter or lens."

Byrne also explores this idea with lush, studio-styled still lifes. "I noticed that I'd been taking pictures of sacred sites and objects as I traveled," he says. "Eventually it dawned on me that I had a lot of photos of these kinds of things, so I thought I'd try to make my own — sometimes using actual sacred objects, sometimes nominating my own." Among these objects, which he has photographed against glamorous, spotlighted velvet backgrounds, is a plastic jar containing placenta from the birth of his daughter Malu, who's now six. "Eventually I added the big gold frames to really make my intentions more obvious."

For the works in "Anima Mundi" his aim is expanding and exploring concepts of media and advertising, a theme the artist returns to repeatedly. "There's a display aesthetic that runs through all that stuff," he says. "The religious shrines obviously take on a kind of display quality. It's not that much different than the way art is showcased or jewelry is displayed in Tiffany's windows. These things are imbued with magical qualities in the same ways sacred objects are."

Byrne would like his work to appear in more popular arenas. In conjunction with the San Francisco Camerawork exhibition, he makes his first entry into the controversial world of public art. Five images from his computer-enhanced "Stairway to Heaven" series — vividly colored manipulated photographs of weapons juxtaposed to international currency — will be installed for two weeks on the sides of the green JCDecaux kiosks on Market Street in San Francisco.

"They call them kiosks, but they really are toilets," Byrne says. "I figured somebody would ask me about them, so I tried a couple of them out. Some were working, some were not."

The "Stairway to Heaven" pictures, reproduced on transparencies at a strikingly dense resolution, work well as seductive, sensationalized images. One is of a DNA strand composed of foreign bills,switchblades, and handguns, while another features a gigantic bullet labeled "Canada" and floating on a pulsating op-art background. These pieces link the Led Zeppelin reference of the title to militarism, money, and mortality. They look like mysterious, textless teasers for a big-budget movie about international intrigue.

"I'm very happy that the images are in the same context as Levi's ads, Gap ads, Calvin Klein ads, and posters for current movies," Byrne says. "They're about the seductiveness of ads, and hopefully you'll do kind of a double take after you see what they are." He also sees advertising as simply a basic component of modern life. "We all study advertising in a way; it's part of our grammar now. We're amazingly visually and graphically literate. People can even instantly sense what a typeface is trying to imply, what it's related to, and how it resonates."

Unlike the pictures in the gallery, which use traditional photographic techniques, the posters are slick and computer-enhanced, with scanned images and 3-D graphics. The digital touches, however, are not the artist's primary interest. "To me the computer-manipulated look is part of the current visual grammar," Byrne says. "There is nothing that attractive about the fact that it was done on the computer. It's just the way things are done at the moment."