Theresa Byrnes
Frontispiece Abstract Portraits PerformanceArt Events In Print Bio Studio Diary Contact Join Mail
Wine Selector
Spring 2006
wine spectator Spring 2006 wine spectator Spring 2006 theresa byrnes sydney to new york

What is it about New York that makes it resonate so strongly with artists? The epicenter of modern capitalism seems an unlikely choice for visual artists so often philosophically opposed to its strident symbolism of the American century and the overarching reach of US imperialism.

But perhaps it is the dynamism of contradiction that drew Australian artist Theresa Byrnes to Lower Manhattan, home since the late 1990s and fertile nursery for her bold abstract works, most recently shown here in her solo show, New York to Sydney at Sydney’s Saatchi and Saatchi gallery. Her life has been a whirlwind of contrast; an open and exhausting act of rebellion that finds its own epicenters of stillness and purity in the act of painting- ironic, really, when you look at the explosive results.

Meeting her at the exhibition, you quickly realize that the progressively degenerative nerve disease Friedrich’s Ataxia, which has consigned her to a wheelchair (and which, to her manifest disgust, too often earns her the lable of ‘gutsy disabled artist’) has little, if anything, to do with her art. Her restlessness and desire to discover the way to philosophy and the secret of existence through painting were well entrenched before the onset of her illness.

Born in Sydney in 1969, she felt an outsider as a child and struggled to find her place, passing through the teenage punk years, then living within a remote indigenous community in the Northern Territory; painting alone in an empty farmhouse in the hills above Rio de Janeiro or living and creating in a pigeon-dropped, paint-peeled Newtown warehouse. But always on a restless move forward.

Her wanderlust informed her creative practice. In her autobiography she wrote: “My emphasis had shifted further again to the process, the act of painting itself. In that same way, I had stopped looking for my home. I had found it in the movement from one place to another, from one stroke on the canvas to the next.” Never daunted by the encroaching disease, she writes, “Fear is freedom’s fuel for flight. Stability and security are potential’s prison”.

So, is her spacious Chelsea studio with its windows looking out onto Manhattan potential’s prison?

“Even in New York you have to keep risking”, she tells me, still coming to grips with the tiring mix of jetlag, an exhibition opening and the social demands of coming home after many years away. “I’m not seeking a point of closure in my paintings, I learn in the process. My own techniques are always developing – I get into a focused zone and suddenly whole new rooms open before me.”

In many ways, her exploration of abstraction echoes the randomness of opportunity that has shaped her life. She describes her paintings as “afterthoughts, the reflection of proof of where I’ve been”. Although her beginnings in art were more traditional (including a short-lived and unsatisfying stint at art school in Sydney), her love of figure painting was soon replaced by a more robust experimentation with colour and paint’s physical properties, the way it moves over the canvas, paper or the metals that bear her recent forays into enamels.

But one aspect (of many) of abstract painting that has long puzzled me is how, given the absence of a figurative representation, does the artist know when a painting is finished? If, as she believes, she is painting what can’t be understood, when does the point of conclusion present itself?

“When it sings”, answers Theresa, “and that’s what I’m addicted to – finding that moment of clarity. The I’m happy to let the go; a painting is meant for someone, although it might take five or ten years to find them”.

Andre Malraux observed that modern art was born on the day the idea of art and beauty were separated. In many ways, it’s that separation that makes a lot of abstract art difficult to approach or comprehend. “Everyone has a personal idea of beauty,” comments Theresa. “Sometimes you must pass through ugliness before you reach it.”

She has confronted much ugliness in her life – despite her refusal to surrender to her condition. As she writes in her autobiography, with “that deadly drug being monitored and pumped through my system by the nurses of chance”, fear is never vanquished.

“As soon as I fear, I get on its back and it takes me to better places that I could ever imaging – fear is the herald of a new avenue”, she states defiantly.

Most recently, Theresa has returned to the figure, with delicate, elusive portraits commissioned from her wide circle of friends and colleagues in New York. One can sense her will to control the brush, to defy the Gods in this most human of genres.

“No-one ever understood me but in the act of making art I am totally myself and that self isn’t my personality, it’s a connection to the universe. It’s a very centering experience.”