I make narrative paintings of isolated figures in spare landscapes or interiors in an effort to portray psychological states concerning issues of human connectedness and emotional longing. Figures interacting with one another or their environment in the painting are intended to serve as metaphors for larger aspects of the human condition, suggesting combined characteristics of support and vulnerability, healing and desire. I attempt to do this through describing archetypal gestures, moments between people repeated everyday, filled with meaning about who we are and what we mean to each other. Uncertainty and paradox is imbedded in the image in the painting, leaving the viewer to enter into a silent dialogue with the work, inviting them to bring their own associations and experiences to the painting to complete the meaning.
As Mark Leach wrote in the 1992 catalogue for an exhibition of my work at the Mint Museum “Reading Jim Byrne’s paintings is not as easy as it might first appear. It is like opening Pandora’s box because even as their beautiful painted surfaces, ambient lighting, decorative patterning and ostensible quietude entice us to look closer, to open ourselves to the humanistic and healing messages, we realize they act as mirrors also revealing to us our inner most anxieties and fears.”
These ideas have evolved over time. In earlier works the figures were androgynous and raised questions about gender roles and sexuality. Schematic representations of symbolic objects –fallen tree limbs, blankets, cups, a telescope – set in opposition to figures resonated through juxtaposition by adding layers of meaning. The narratives were placed in interior rooms to set up a dichotomy between the internal and external worlds. Progressively the work began to show more specific representations, clear gender, specific identity and a more defined place. The figures moved from the interior to bucolic, idealized, open spaced landscape settings with transient light in an atmosphere suggestive of thresholds and change. The figures remain central in the composition and iconic in nature. As the representations have become more specific, cultural elements familiar to our contemporary time and place such as a commonplace object like a book bag or cell phone have been integrated into the work. The ubiquity of these objects in our culture create an effective counterpoint to the otherwise classical description of form in space found in my work, and create a tension between the spiritual and the mundane, a condition marking our current culture.
With the most recent series of paintings exhibited at Tew Galleries in 2013, I have continued with similar imagery used in earlier paintings while exploring new conceptual themes presented through new visual structures. In this work I have continued to depict scenes of figures engage in uncertain activities in imagined park-like landscape settings as a way of trying to explore the psychological conditions embedded in human relationships. New themes have emerged however as I have gotten older regarding aging, reflections on the past, memory and journeys forward. Pushing the formal properties of the paintings into new territory, I have attempted to create a greater degree of abstraction in the work by flattening out the shapes, expanding color interactions for emotional effect and creating more dynamic spatial ambiguity. Inspired by numerous art historical periods and traditions, including Persian manuscript illuminations, Chinese landscape painting, Proto and Early Italian Renaissance painting and the Early Moderns, the highly patterned designs of my paintings are an effort to move away from illusionism into the metaphysical realm and into the symbolic and emotional realm, creating a poetic dream space. Recurring throughout many of my paintings are images of kites and boats - objects of childhood, play, fantasy and escape. Figures relating or not relating to each other with these objects and others in the quietude of these landscapes are caught in their own interiority, serving as a means of relection for the viewer, asking questions without giving answers.