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REVIEW: Dean Byington's ferocious, unruly impulses in a new show at Kohn Gallery

Bingham Canyon Mine, 2017, by Dean Byington
Bingham Canyon Mine, 2017, by Dean Byington
Dean Byington/Kohn Gallery

Off-Ramp arts correspondent Marc Haefele reviews Dean Byington's “Theory of Machines." See it at the Kohn Gallery through June 30.

“I have my impulses,” says the bearded, sturdy painter Dean Byington, gesturing at his nine immense black and white canvases in “Theory of Machines’’ at the Kohn Gallery. Looking at the pictures, you think, “These impulses are deeply sublimated.” 

That’s because his work is so profoundly meticulous, on such a grandiose scale, that you’ll want to put on your reading glasses to see it. Its land and townscapes depict dozens of square miles of intricate visions of compressed, distressed and fragmentary realities, juxtaposed and superimposed into the irreal by Byington’s ferocious, unruly imagination. And those impulses.

The commonality is their feeling of faltering failure. Baroque facades poke up at 45 degree angles, like sagging tombstones. Domed and steepled building shapes are skeletal, flayed structures of iron framework. At the base of each canvas there is usually at least one great concentric hole, often representing an open pit mine. One of these is labeled “Omphalos,” or “navel.”

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This refers, says Byington, to the damage we do to our earth.

Overhanging many of his tableaux are stage-scenery flats. These objects had a key role in Byington’s early artistic development. As a child, he had the run of the film lots of Culver City—Particularly Desilu Studios, known now as Culver Studios. In his catalog, Byington said: “The sense of abandonment in there is something I always carry: the feeling of loss and decay in those lots and sets was very palpable and hard to shake.”

“So much of Hollywood is a façade,” said David O. Selznik. And although Byington now lives in the Bay Area, his works invoke that filmic reality.  The permanent sense of the temporary, the idea that once something is photographed, it is discarded. Modern machines often sprawl in ruin among his landscape’s ancient artifices—like the seven  derelict turbofan aircraft engines at the bottom of “Theory of Machines (Grand Saturn). “Grand Saturn” is said to riff on 19th Century painter Edwin Church’s “The Heart of the Andes,’’ but Church’s virgin South American  mountainscape is here sullied by layers of debris and the  detritus of countless derelict civilizations, while centered by a bosky  stage flat from some Arcadian drama. In Byington’s earlier work, nature is vivid, even occasionally striped with color, But in his recent  pictures, nature is often represented by flat fakery.

The painter’s key influence include the printmakers of the 18th to 19th century, but his technique is rooted in earlier German engraving, particularly that of Durer. Yet the collage-like process by which he builds his work is also reminiscent of the early '60s pre-psychedelic creations of artist/writers such as Akbar del Piombo. Byington cuts and clips and applies and builds his surfaces, then finishes his paintings with silk screens and computer scanning. The results include antique surfaces that closely impersonate the lines of fine engraving.

But the eldritch execution is belied by Byington’s transgressive impulses—like the vast 18th century warship that is perfectly inverted, standing on the tips of its masts in “The New City.”  Or the waterless “Waterfall” that does include a procession of happy-looking folk lining up to vault into a giant, hand-cranked meat grinder. Another of his imagined cities even includes a Chinatown—with the signs inverted. What does this immense, immaculate swath of thwarted representation actually represent? 

Trying to answer that question bears heavily on the viewer’s mind. And that’s a worthwhile experience.