Jim Byrne’s paintings are tinged with a contemporary sense of unease without ever being uncomfortably disturbing. The air of emotional uncertainty in the figures’ faces and postures, the contrasts of vivid and muted colors, and the disjunctive mixing of figuration and abstraction combine to give the works at Tew Galleries through November 25 a particularly appealing power.
Byrne names Pierre Bonnard as a major influence; the New York-based artist seems to combine the tone of Bonnard’s disturbingly psychological portraits with the French painter’s happier landscapes and interiors.
The figures seem slightly out of sync with their surroundings. The paintings are filled with what ought to be markers of idyllic moments outdoors: kites, boats, a campfire. But the boats aren’t necessarily in the water, the kites are mostly not yet launched, and the inhabitants of the scenes seem as immersed in melancholy or deep reflection as the isolated young woman who sits alone on the stone wall in the eponymous painting.
One kite, in “Seek,” does appear to be aloft, but the holder of the string is out of the picture, and the brightly patterned kite partly obscures the interactions of a young man and woman who stand awkwardly on opposite sides of a tree in what seems to be a thoroughly ambivalent encounter.
Such atmospheric and mysterious figures populate landscapes that frequently dissolve into pure patterning. The sky, in particular, is rendered in a looser version of the same kind of repeated geometric pattern that decorates the kites. The trees and vegetation are rendered in ways that range from straightforward depiction to groupings of geometric patches.
Byrne’s increasing emphasis on abstract pattern sometimes works against his best interests. “Water’s Edge,” the most experimental piece in the show, is problematic. The vegetation in the foreground, which should obscure the two figures behind it, is drawn in a perfunctory cartoon fashion with no claim to realism. This would be fine if the figures and landscape behind it weren’t partly obscured by diamond-shaped yellow lozenges; these differently distorted rectangles are meant to refer to autumn leaves flying in the wind, but set against a realistic background they suggest instead sheets of old-fashioned typewriter paper.
The strategy operates brilliantly in “Launch,” a new work in which it’s difficult to settle for long on the man, woman and kite on the dock because the patterning of the surrounding water is so emphatic, and in “A Place for Fires,” the other most ambitious combination of realism and abstraction. The metaphor implicit in the title sets up a great deal of profitable reflection on the relationship between one figure and another in what is much more than a picture of swimmers kindling a campfire by the shoreline.