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Love, Birds, and Oil: Artistic Confrontations

A review by Sandra Paci

Love Birds, an exhibition by Jason Alexander Byers

Garis & Hahn, New York City, November 19 – December 19, 2015

Love Birds, Jason Alexander Byers’s first solo exhibition in New York City, consists of thirteen striking works on paper, each measuring 30 x 22 inches, with the evocative single-word titles Repulse, Hypnotize, Crash, Enchant, Bewitch, Repel, Worship, Seduce, Enrapture, Taste, Passion, Tempt and Crave.

Each work in the series depicts the silhouetted shape of a pair of birds, rendered in black tar against a stark white ground. Each of these pairs forms a single complex shape, conjuring up associations from Rorschach inkblots and topographical maps to fantastical hybrid creatures. Byers has left it to the viewer to decide whether the birds are alive, hurtling through the air in poses that alternately suggest either a deadly fight or a mating ritual, or disfigured in death. Where eyes are shown, they are unpainted circles, with the white paper showing through, bringing to mind museum specimens and helping to create a sense of foreboding and an association with death.

Byers sample

In an email interview, the artist discussed the title of the exhibition:

The title Love Birds refers to my favorite birds. Most of them are included in this series: Great Blue Herons, Barn Owls, Red-tailed Hawks, cardinals, eagles, and many others. I leave it to the viewer’s interpretation as to whether the birds are fighting, mating, or playing. The series is about struggle and passion.

Love Birds was inspired by the devastating Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010, just as spring migration was beginning to bring thousands upon thousands of birds into the area. In the words of the artist,

I read an article about the Deepwater Horizon spill, and all I could think about were the horrible photographs of the Exxon Valdez spill, which was the first time I saw wildlife covered in oil. After I read the article, I started researching which birds were harmed the most due to the spill. Then I decided to do a series based on those birds.

Byers’s fascination with birds stems in large part from their structural beauty and dynamism. In each image from the Love Birds series, tension is evident in the turbulent yet graceful poses of the joined birds, and between the black pools of shiny tar and the untouched matte paper. Ultimately, the series is a reminder to the audience of the impact they have on the environment, of the rights and responsibilities that go along with it, and of the fragility and grace of life itself.

Byers has worked in many different mediums: painting, sculpture, printmaking, and photography. He even performs in a rock band. He has used tar before, most notably in a series depicting New York City churches and architecture. The artist describes how he first became interested in this non-traditional material,

When I started working with tar, it was unintentional. I was a sculpture student and had trouble using color. I’ve always been more attracted to texture than color. As I was trying to figure out what color to paint one of my sculptures, I decided to try tar. A gallon of tar had been sitting around the studio for weeks, and no one seemed interested in it. What started out as an experiment has become my favorite medium. There are so many different types of tar, offering many different textures and shades of black. It’s fun to try all of them. They are very difficult to apply. I like the challenge of making the tar work the way I want it to.

For the Love Birds series, the black tar has been thinned to a consistency that will not tear or harm the paper ground. The artist then applies it with a stick. Thinner and thicker pools of tar interact somewhat randomly to create ultra-shiny and less shiny areas. Byers explains, “The application is always different. Some products are easier to work with than others. Each series uses the same tar to stay consistent visually. My architecture series is created with a completely different type of tar. I prefer to mix it up with every series to separate them from the others.”

The medium is perfectly suited to the subject and imagery of the Love Birds series. The power of the works derives largely from the ironic contrast of the beauty of the birds themselves with their rendering in a material that is deadly to them.

Love Birds marks a notable solo debut. That said, this small but arresting exhibition feels more like an overture than a final statement. One can’t help but hope that Byers will continue to explore this worthy theme in the future in works that are larger in scale, more three-dimensional in nature, or both. Contemporary art is at its best when it engages with the world and with the world of ideas in ways that are accessible and thought-provoking. Byers has already accomplished this. Next time out, it would be both fascinating and rewarding to see him ratchet up his game even further.

Sandy Paci photograph

Sandra Paci lives in New York City. She works for a gallery in the Chelsea art district, and is an active member of the Brooklyn Bird Club and the Linnaean Society of New York. Paci is the founder of the Facebook group “Birds in Art History.”

Recommended citation:

Paci, S. 2016. Love, Birds and Oil: An Artistic Confrontation [a review of Love Birds, an exhibition by Jason Alexander Byers]. Birding 48.1: 72-73.

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