George Byrne

LA-based Australian artist George Byrne creates photographic abstractions of urban geometry. Through his cubist approach to form and line, Byrne reassembles the American cityscape into ascetic compilations of colour and shape. Artist Profile caught up with the artist while he was in Sydney for his show ‘Post Truth’ at Olsen Gallery.

You grew up in Sydney – graduating from the Sydney College of the Arts in 2001 – before travelling extensively and settling in Los Angeles in 2011. How has this experience of travel shaped your practice?
It’s hard to say exactly, but I’m sure all the traveling played a big part in how I approach things creatively. I sort of cut my teeth photographically by traveling to far-off places and taking lots of photos. My first two solo shows in my early twenties were based on my travels in India and Italy. I think by putting myself in different situations I’ve learned new ways of seeing. My practice is where it is today based on every little thing I’ve done, both in Australia and abroad; it all adds up.

The photographs in your new series ‘Post Truth’ inhabit the subliminal space between reality and fiction, alluding to our present age where the concept of truth is elusive. Can you elaborate on this conceptual tenor?
Yeah it was something I realised was happening by accident really. I wasn’t consciously mirroring or mimicking the present state of affairs, but perhaps there was something subliminal going on. Living in the United States up to (and through) the 2016 election has been a very strange thing to behold. I never thought I’d see this stuff actually happening, unraveling. But we live in a world where there is no longer a universally accepted truth. There are literally different versions of reality being pitched depending on which news feed you’re aligned with. So to be able to re-appropriate this rather terrifying concept into something creative and positive has been an interesting challenge. I also think part of the conversation I’m having is with photography itself – born a medium for truth telling and documentary, yet with technology this is no longer the case. My new work inhabits that strange space.

Stylistically, the photographs are rendered with a kind of magical realism, distilling the urban landscape into surreal vignettes of colour, shape and line. What steps led you to develop this distinctive visual language?
This may sound kind of odd, but from a very young age I have consciously marveled at the miracle of my own eyesight. I’ve loved the simple mindless pleasure of looking at objects and color and how those things intersect and interact. Picking up a camera thus came naturally, without any other motivation in mind – all I was trying to do was just record and replicate the beautiful stuff I was seeing everywhere.

In terms of a visual language, when I look back at all the pictures I’ve taken since I was a kid, there’s definitely a through line. From the very start I was a bit obsessed with finding balance through line and form (color came later) and training my lens on things that were not inherently beautiful or interesting and trying to spin them into something more.

Moving to LA nine years ago was when I found my palette. I first took thousands of iPhone pictures, lots of trial and error, but the evolution of my work to what’s happening right now has been very organic. I feel as though for the past five years I’ve been following a trail of breadcrumbs. Every time I think I may have resolved things, another door swings open and I keep going.

There’s an uncanny sense of desertion in these silent scenes, as if the streets have been emptied – and yet you incorporate hints of habitation: a parked car, a green traffic light, inflated balloons or an open sign. I’m interested in why you omit the human subject in such a densely manmade landscape?
I was finding the humans in the pictures a little distracting, so I stopped looking out for them. The pictures in this show are perhaps a little more reduced and elemental than my previous works as I’m really looking to see what the landsapes themselves say without a human narrative in them.

Who have you been influenced by in this series?
The New York-based painter Patricia Treib, and German photographer Andreas Gursky

Your process for this series involved extracting photographic material from multiple images to assemble new semi-fictional landscapes from multiple perspectives, like a cubist painting. They become, in your own words, ‘creations as much as they are observations’. How does this act of intervention relate to your overall ideas?
I first started experimenting with photo-collage by accident – I was messing around in Photoshop and accidently discovered this tool that let me mix two pictures together. It was a light bulb moment.

I find the making of these images is extremely difficult; I’m setting a high bar for myself. I’m not interested in repeating myself, so a part of my artistic evolution is avoiding walking where I’ve walked before, and having the freedom to employ a more expressive input into the images themselves. I like to say that the ‘Post Truth’ images are ‘based on a true story but open to interpretation’.

What are some of the key differences you’ve experienced working in LA opposed to Sydney?
There are really big variances in the light and landscape, but probably the biggest difference when working is my headspace. In LA I’m an alien in an alien landscape. Even though I’ve been there almost ten years, I still find the place strange and fascinating in distinct ways. That probably drives much of my photographic investigation. I am, though, very much looking forward to spending more time in Sydney and getting the chance to explore again. The image titled Post Truth (2018) in this exhibition is a photo collage comprising both Sydney (Bondi) and a few LA locations.

What’s next?!
I have this animation project I’m working on and an exhibition in New York in September, so I better get cracking!

George Byrne | Post Truth
29 January – 17 February 2019
Olsen Gallery, Sydney


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