A DATE WITH THE DIVINE
The Art of Theresa Byrnes
By Carey Monserrate
On a recent fall Sunday, I took the subway down to Manhattan's East Village and
paid a visit to the 400 square foot studio and living space of painter and performance
artist Theresa Byrnes, whose work adorns this issue of CrossCurrents. The last time
we'd seen each other, in February, she'd shown me a handful of small pieces executed
in enamel on aluminum, each bearing some thing of a resemblance to thinly bisected
geodes, with that same fine, almost mineral stratification, photographic intensity,
and high gloss. They held an immediate, somewhat inexplicable appeal. "I've been
experimenting with this medium for a while," she remarked with some enthusiasm.
"We'll see where it takes me."
Nine months later, every available inch of wall space is covered with a pro fusion
of these arresting visual tone poems, each mounted on a metal backing, some no larger
than a napkin, others as high as five feet. She calls this latest cycle Tantric
Paintings (the exhibition premiered Nov. 15 th at the Theater for the New City in
New York, and remains on view until December 22 nd ). To spend an afternoon with
Byrnes is both a humbling and transporting experience. Her approach to the creative
process, which she talks about with a kind of joyful reverence, borders on the mystical,
while she herself remains firmly grounded in the earthly and mundane. Listening
to her speak is a little bit like sitting at the foot of a sage. As she puts it,
"For me, painting is like church, or prayer, or a deep state of worship. It's a
communion with the Divine." The works that comprise Tantric Paintings are succinct
effloresences of color and line, dispersed in sharply executed, flowing strokes
and organomorphic shapes---a sort of spare, controlled form of Action painting,
with color values selected to maximum dynamic effect. Byrnes found that the play
of enamel on aluminum produced an unpredictable array of textures and chromatic
interac tions depending in part on ambient air temperature and humidity---an unpre
dictability she learned to work with over time. The result is a compelling visual
experience. There's a lot going in these paintings: miniature topographies dis
close themselves beneath frozen explosions of color; subatomic landscapes and microscopic
cellular surfaces, each bearing palpable dimensionality---even sen suality---as
a result of the enamel's nuanced complexion, rest in harmonic ten sion with Byrnes's
strong, bold delineations.
The dimensions of many of these pieces, coupled with their metallic tonal values
and finish (gold, silver, copper, rust) recall the contemplative intensity of the
icon and gothic altar panel: with a long, slow gaze, the viewer is brought to a
state of meditative reflection. The ones I'd first viewed in February drew from
this same vein. Ultimately, in spite their expressive clarity, each of these works
defy comparison with any representational form. They are the residue of the artist's
sustained engagement with her process, which she in turn experiences as a kind of
"Painting is practical ontology," Byrnes says. "It's a chemical or scientific experiment
to understand the metaphysics of existence, because you're working with chance,
with intuition, you're playing on that fine line between ego and humility. You've
got to be incredibly bold and confident and have no doubt, but at the same time
you have to be totally humble and open to any intuitive direc tion that might be
coming across. But it can't be conscious to the point where you're waiting for a
sign. Physically you have to be in the moment. And when everything comes together
it's just totally blissful and orgasmic, without being sexual. It's like a spiritual
orgasm---a date with the Divine."
Standing in her tiny studio, surrounded by these peculiarly arresting works while
what sounds like plainsong issues from a small portable audio box in a corner, it
isn't hard to grasp the connection Byrnes draws between her art and Tantric practice.
Born in 1969 in Sydney, Australia, Theresa Byrnes is one of those fortunate individuals
for whom the question of vocation was never in doubt. Her parents, themselves amateur
artists with a love of painting, gave her her first profes sional oil painting
set at the age of five; by the the time she was 16, she had already held her first
exhibit. She received a Young Australian of the Year award in 1997 and was appointed
as Australia Day Ambassador in 1998. By her thirti eth birthday, her status as
a rising star in the art world of Australia was secure. Byrnes is also one of those
rare individuals unafraid of radical change. Beginning as a figurative painter,
she abandoned representation for abstraction about ten years ago. And after establishing
the foundation for a successful career in her native country, she gave it up and
moved to New York in 2000---just in time for the events of 9/11. That day, which
she considers a transformative experience she is grateful to have endured, propelled
her into performance art, which she came to regard as a more direct, personal vehicle
for conveying some of her ideas.
In 1996, she established the Theresa Byrnes Foundation, which funds research toward
developing a cure for Friedreich's Ataxia, a fatal degenerative disease of the nervous
system, which she has. As a result, she is wheelchair--mobile. Byrnes was diagnosed
with FA at 17.
"Before FA started coming on, I knew there was something wrong with me," she says.
"Everything in my life was too perfect . . . It almost fit with my person ality
as a sort of tragic romantic. I've always believed that within tragedy there is
incredible life and emotion. So my condition is not something I think of as sad;
I think it's something so beautifully human. It doesn't makes me less of a human
being. It makes me so rich. It's had a humanizing and deepening effect on my life."
The Divine Mistake, Byrnes's autobiography, offers an account of her life and work
up until her move to New York, and she is currently working on a second book about
her life in the States. In the meantime, she continues to experience her work as
a kind of spiritual path. As she recently wrote of Tantric Paintings: I am on a
date with God / Goddess. Paint becomes the copper wire con duit connecting me to
the divine. Painting is a prayer or mantra but it is active and ecstatic. It combines
the desire to unite with God and the sensuality of physical being. . . . And like
pools my paintings reflect back memories of the transcendent painting process---celestial
and molecular photographs exploring deep within my own biology, to the vastness
of the universe, to the comfort of earthy nature and its cycles, to intellectual
awakenings and to esoteric truths.
The artist will give a live performance at Theater for the New City in New York
on December 20th . For more information, see www.theresabyrnes.com.