As an Antipodean living in the complex urban sprawl that makes up Los Angeles, George Byrne is in a unique position to observe his borrowed hometown. The Sydney bred artist has made a name both locally and internationally for his pastel-painted landscapes of the City of Angels and he returns to Sydney this month to showcase a new collection. Currently exhibiting a new body of work, Post Truth, at Woollahra’s Olsen Gallery, Byrne returns to his photographic roots, but also embraces another medium: collage. By splicing and dicing his images into compositions, Byrne reinvents cityscapes and creates a new dialogue to comment on the fractured politics of Trumpian America.
Ahead of the opening night on February 8, Vogue Living sat down to chat with the artist about his new body of work.
Artwork: George Byrne, Gelsons, 2018, Archival Pigment Print
How did the political climate in your adopted country affect your work for Post Truth?
I think it has played a large part as the work is a reflection of how I’m feeling. Living in the US over the past few years has been pretty wild. I’ve never been a part of a culture that feels so broken and polarised. Or lived in a place where there are literally different versions of reality being pitched by different news streams. It’s quite surreal. As my work was coming together for this show I started to see a parallel between the creative statement I was making with photography and the notion of truth in general. It’s nice to be able to channel the Post Truth concept for something positive and hopefully, hopeful.
Artwork: George Byrne, Parking Garage, 2018, Archival Pigment Print
You’ve explored collage and composition in this collection, what made you want to branch out?
The decision to push the photographs further into collage came about very gradually through trial and error. I began using post-production techniques to modify my images a few years ago, but one day, while working on a particular photo, I accidentally blended two completely different images together… and it was a bit of a light bulb moment. It really opened up so many possibilities and enabled me to be more expressive with the work I was creating. It freed me to employ a completely different approach to image making.
Artwork: George Byrne, Pink Awning With Orange, 2018, Archival Pigment Print
I’m guessing there are endless variations when you work with collage. How do you land on the final composition? ie. How do you know when something is ‘done’? Or are you constantly tinkering and refining?
Yes I’m constantly tinkering and refining. It’s sometimes very difficult to know when an image is done, the old saying is ‘a painting is never finished, only abandoned’, and it can be a little that way. I shortlist various parts of multiple images that I like and then try to find ways of making them work together. I am often drowning in material. I sift through the work and look for the connective tissue, things that make sense and tell a good story. The final stage is print-testing the images and getting the colour and contrast in the right place.
Artwork: George Byrne, Desert Pit Stop, 2018, Archival Pigment Print
What role does the fictional or imagined play in your latest work?
A lot. To create these images I had to engage both my imagination and subconscious, which was fun and really hard. I’d make a mark, then take it off. Then I’d make another mark, leave it for a week and come back to it with fresh eyes, add more and then take a bit off. I’d go back and forth like this until I felt the work was finished. These images hover somewhere in between a painting and a photograph. That strange space is, for right now, where I feel most comfortable.
Artwork: George Byrne, East Hollywood, 2018, Archival Pigment Print
Some might say living in LA as an Australian gives you a unique perspective on the landscape and culture. Do you feel like you look at Los Angeles with a different lens?
I do think that being from out of town gives you a unique perspective on any place. With LA and I, it was just a great match at a great time. I was eager to shoot and had no pressure to do it. So the love affair with the landscape was pure of heart. I had no inkling it would ever lead to anything, it was just an ongoing project that I became obsessed with. I took thousands of photos before I even made a print.
Artwork: George Byrne, Santa Clarita #2, 2018, Archival Pigment Print
When choosing urban landscapes to photograph, what qualities draw your attention?
Usually it’s just a simple intersection of colour and form that is the seed of something for me. And that is often a fleeting thing, as the shadows move. But beyond that, it’s also feeling, I just get a feeling about a space and want to go and look at it. Lots of times there’s nothing there and I just go back to the car but every now and then I find some gold.
Colour, particularly pastels, is such a motif running through your work. Is it something you’re consciously looking for when you shoot?
I do love the chalky softness of pastels, I love that those colours are married to the sun. I enjoy experimenting with the alchemy between colours, it’s magic.
Artwork: George Byrne, Peach Wall #2, 2018, Archival Pigment Print
Are you ever tempted to venture into different landscapes – eg. more rural or natural?
I am, yes. Recently I did a residency at a hotel just south of Byron Bay called Halcyon House. I took a whole series of bush landscapes, which I found really interesting. But as for what I’ve been exhibiting, I have been very focused on these urban landscapes. It has been evolving in a way that I didn’t see coming, and for now is keeping me busy.