Interview with Theresa Byrnes, Painter and Performance Artist

Australian-born and New York-based Painter and Performance Artist Theresa Byrnes talks with Artifactoid about inspiration, a return to her roots as a painter, and her most recent performance, “Mudbird,” created in collaboration with her 20-month-old son. 

Artifactoid: How did you get started as an artist?

TB: At age 16 in 1985, my studio was the family lounge and dining area. I would start to paint every night after dinner while everyone watched TV.  By the time everyone went off to bed one by one, I would get more and more on a roll. I would paint through the night. Soon I outgrew the family room, no longer able to pack all my canvases neatly every night without disrupting my process or running the risk of wet work being trodden on when the the family awoke. I scoured the classifieds to find a studio. I found part of a warehouse to rent cheaply, so I did. 29 years ago, at age 17 in 1986, I began to paint full-time in my very own studio!

I had already been included in minor group shows from 14 years of age and on. While in high school I did life drawing classes at night, and some of my drawings were selected for a group show. I went out on a limb and contacted a curator who included my work in a rotating VIP lounge, and my work began to sell. My first solo exhibition was at 17, but I consider being an artist about making art more than about exhibiting or selling it.

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Mistakes in painting are like an angel pushed your hand, changing your direction to somewhere you never would have gone

Artifactoid: Who are your biggest influences in performance art and why? Who inspires you?

TB: I did my first performance when I was 19 in 1989 in Sydney Australia’s Chinatown. The piece, titled “China Crisis,” was my response to the Tiananmen Square Massacre. My entrance into doing performance art was not inspired by an artist, but by heroic dissent. The cry out for freedom and justice inspires me. In “China Crisis,” I laid in front of a large red painting. For me, performance is a natural spill-over from painting: paint is my language, I just commit my body to performance. “TRACE” (2007) was inspired by a dying bird in an oil spill. In “DUST TO DUST” (2011), dirt was my inspiration – the transformative power of mulch.

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In 2002, I met Carolee Schneemann; we read each other’s books (mine The Divine Mistake, her’s More Than Meat Joy). I learned a lot about her work, and felt connected to her even more once I learned that she is also a painter whose performance flows from that.

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Artifactoid: What are some of your biggest day-to-day influences as an artist?

TB: Stains on the sidewalks, streaks with random marks on windows – I made a short  film about sidewalk markings titled, CARELESS in 2000. Tunde Adebimpe (TV on the Radio) helped me shoot and edit it (he is now my son’s godfather). It was screened at MONA (Detroit) in 2001.

Old, decaying wood also inspires me, I have done several painting series on aged wood 2001 and 2010. When I paint on aging wood, I feel like I am collaborating with nature, not trying to capture it.

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Artifactoid: How has your perspective as an artist changed over time?

TB: That nothing is permanent. Earlier in my career, well, pre-September 11th, I cared greatly about paintings lasting forever. Now I feel “archival” materials are pitched to artists who believe this civilization will survive another 500-1000 years. I am into showing who we are now, because now is real: all we have, vulnerable, avoided, denied, unnoticed. Art materials are everywhere; they’re not limited to an art store. I love to work with mud and hair and other ingredients as well as ink and oil paint.

Artifactoid: What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned through your art?

TB: That nothing is a mistake. Mistakes in painting are like an angel pushed your hand, changing your direction to somewhere you never would have gone. In my entire 30-year career, painting still genuinely astounds me – the unguessable moment it resolves.

Artifactoid: What is the best advice you’ve ever received in your career?

TB: Be humble.

Artifactoid: In what direction would you like to take your art moving forward?

TB: I am at a turning point. I am returning to my roots as a painter, where I first discovered my talent and lost my identity/sense of separation from art in the process: painting portraits. For the next two years, I will only paint portraits. Abstraction and performance art lent to my feeling immortal, but now, I am a mother and I feel human, more grounded and more vulnerable than ever. I am pulled to dive in in this direction.

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Artifactoid: What advice would you give to other artists?

TB: Know when to stop. As long as you are making art, “you’ve made it.”

Artifactoid: Please describe your inspiration behind “Mudbird,” and some of the most important things about the piece (to you).

TB: “Mudbird” is the second performance I have done with my son, Sparrow, (now 20 months old). In “Mudbird” I play with my baby in the mud thinking of the cycle of all beings – to live and die. We come from the earth and end up in it. Mud; earth, is a uniting and dividing force between mother and child. I gave my life for his to begin. Okay, I am not dead yet, but a part of me has died – my life as a single artist.

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At the time of performance, I felt a sense of my immanent death. I have Friedrich’s Ataxia (FA). It is a chronic and fatal genetic disorder of the nervous system. I have been wheelchair-mobile for 20 years. My voice slurring, mundane things slowly getting harder, and recently I tore my right rotator cuff. I have never felt disabled, as I have always fulfilled my aims and called the shots, but post-birth and with injury, I felt unusualły hopeless. Sure I cannot walk, but now I can’t fly; wings clipped. Much of the “Mudbird” series is about my burial and Sparrow’s flight. It has been a burial of several parts of myself. And now I again recreate myself, or return to who I am.

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Theresa Byrnes has had over 25 solo shows at spaces including Saatchi & Saatchi in New York and Sydney, and the Australian Embassy in Washington D.C. In 1996, she was awarded Young Australian of the Year. To keep up with Theresa and her latest works, visit her website and follow her on Instagram, Twitter and FacebookStop by her gallery space, TBG (616 East 9th street between Avenues B&C), for her next opening on December 9th, 2015 . 

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Interview with Marina Reiter, Director, Studio 26 Gallery

Artifactoid sits down with Marina Reiter, Artist and Director of Studio 26 Gallery located in the heart of NYC’s East Village. Stop by her East 3rd Street space to hear live music, sit in on a poetry reading, or view visual art that ranges from sculpture, to painting, to performance and more. Also, don’t miss Studio 26 at Art Basel Miami week’s Aqua art fair this year.

Artifactoid: I saw on your website that you opened Studio 26 in 2012, and recently celebrated a one-year anniversary in the East Village space. Congrats! Where did you start out, and how did you decide upon NYC’s East Village? How does the gallery’s location affect the experience of it?

MR: The gallery was originally founded in Bushwick in 2012. The only problem with Bushwick was that there weren’t that many storefront spaces per-se, and renting a gallery space requires a storefront because it’s important to engage the public on a daily basis. We finally saw this space in the East Village, on East 3rd Street in the “mosaic” building, and I really liked the artistic quality of the building itself. The owners said that in fact, they’d had a lot of offers on the space, but they really wanted a gallery to be in there. So, there was a match made in heaven!

Artifactoid: What were you doing prior to opening the studio? What led you to open it, and how did it come together?

MR: I used to run a lot of galleries. I was in Washington, DC and when I lived there, I was gallery director for Studio Gallery, one of the oldest galleries in DC (founded in 1964). It was a collective gallery and at that time we had probably 34 artists that we worked with on a daily basis. We had three floors, and each floor was a different exhibition, so it was just exciting to be totally immersed in that creative energy.

Then, I decided to move to New York in 2009, right after the economic crash. The crash made me rethink certain things in my life — including where I wanted to be — and I decided that I had to be in New York. And, in 2010, I became co-partner in a gallery in Vienna, Austria, called “Gallery M.” We did a lot of international exchange shows between US artists, German artists, and Austrian artists and a lot of art fairs: Art Beijing, art fairs in Strasbourg, Luxembourg. I met a lot of interesting European artists like sculptor Gianfranco Meggiato who recently finished a big commission for the Prince of Monaco.

I was torn between Vienna and New York. I was on the plane every other week. I knew that I needed to do something here in New York City, in my own backyard, so that’s how Studio 26 came about.

Artifactoid: Tell me about some of the noteworthy artists you represent. Which have made the biggest impact on Studio 26 since its opening?

MR: I work with a lot of international artists, and it’s just an amazing experience because international artists really bring their own, unique perspectives. We have artists from France, Norway, Brazil, Turkey — amazing artists, working using all different techniques…and for me, just to be looking at all the art and talking to them completely opens up my mind.

One of the artists that I’ve worked with in the past, from Washington, DC, is John Bodkin. He used to live in the East Village back in the ‘70s. He’s an amazing person, a great artist, and has a very interesting history. Back in the ‘70s when he was a young man, trying to navigate this crazy art world in New York City, he ended up in the East Village and became friends with Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella…they would visit Louise Nevelson’s studio…these are these amazing artists who nowadays are almost god-like creatures, but back in the day, John was hanging out with them, learning from them, talking to them…and ended up carrying on that tradition from the ‘70s. You can definitely see that in his paintings; there’s a lot of Rauschenberg and Stella influence. It’s just amazing to be working with people like that who are part of living history, so to speak. That’s one of the moments that makes daily “gallery life” so exciting: just working with people like that, who are part of history.

Artifactoid: Tell me a bit about your own art, the history of you as an artist.

MR: I describe my art as “biomorphic, organic, abstract art.” My family has a lot of artists. Both of my uncles are famous Russian artists. My great uncle, Nikolai Solomin, actually studied with the founders of classical Russian realism. His son, also Nikolai Solomin, is now probably one of the most recognized Russian painters. They work in either realism or impressionism, and I would say some military realism. I always admired that, but I never felt that realism or landscape were things that I had a tremendous passion for.

When I first came to the US from Russia, I was seven years old. My family and I went to the MET, and that was when I saw abstract art for the first time. I felt like it was something I could absolutely relate to. Then, as a young adult, I decided that I really wanted to go to a good art school that would teach me abstract art. Unfortunately, in Russia, there is much more of a focus on realism, and even now, there is no real appreciation for abstract art there, nor the way to teach it. So, I decided to attend the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, DC, with a primary focus on studying abstract art, painting, and sculpture. It was an amazing experience. I loved my teachers. I’m still friends with a lot of them. And, they’ve been a tremendous influence in my life. In school, I also realized that I’m a colorist: I was really interested in color theory, playing with colors, and just discovering things about myself through my art. It’s a lifelong journey; it’s wonderful, it’s always exciting; never boring.

Artifactoid: How does owning a gallery and being a curator affect how you think about yourself as an artist?

MR: That’s a good question, because being in art administration actually taught me a lot, and I would say as a piece of advice, to many artists, once the painting or the work of art is done, think about the presentation: how you want people to see your art. Make sure that it’s framed properly, that it’s not falling off the wall, because it doesn’t matter if it’s a masterpiece or not: something that’s completely framed, something that doesn’t do the work justice, can absolutely kill the impression, so just be very cautious of that.

Artifactoid: What are some of the biggest changes you’ve noticed in the art world throughout your career, and where do you see it headed?

MR: Here in New York, I’ve noticed a shift in where the galleries are located. Over a period of six years, I noticed a move from Chelsea to the Lower East Side and East Village, and also from Williamsburg to Bushwick. Bushwick is a fun, exciting art scene. It’s really interesting to be a part of the dynamic here, just seeing that it’s not static, that it’s constantly evolving and moving — trying to predict those trends is pretty exciting in itself.

Interestingly enough, speaking of the changes in the art world, as I mentioned I do a lot of international art fairs, and going to Asia, and seeing the Chinese art market, is always particularly interesting because it changes every year. I’m really happy to see that there are more and more people that are interested in and appreciative of abstract art now than there used to be six years ago. Six years ago, it was mostly realism and something that people could relate to on a daily basis. Now, to see that people can relate to western abstract art in China is amazing because it tells you something about all the cultural exchanges that are going on the moment we speak on so many levels between all the countries.

Artifactoid: In what direction would you like to take Studio 26 in the future?

MR: There are a lot of ideas, and my assistants and I are brainstorming every day. We really like what’s happening with Studio 26 right now — that it’s actually a space for all genres of art, not just painting or sculpture. It’s also a space where poets, musicians, and performance artists can come in, test out their latest works, and get feedback in a very supportive environment. That’s really what we try to do as a gallery: be very supportive of our artists. But, we also have other ideas. We are going to launch several new projects, including two new gallery projects that will be marketed and branded under “Reiter Contemporary.” There are some interesting things in the works, so stay tuned!

Artifactoid: Finally, Studio 26 will be at this year’s Aqua art fair in Miami as a part of Art Basel Miami week. Tell us a bit about what you are preparing for the show.

MR: This year we are participating in Aqua Art Miami during the Miami Art Basel week. It’s very exciting. I love art fairs: the people they bring, the reception…everything that goes into that art fair is an amazing experience. I’ve always been a huge fan, and now that we are participating, we’re all super excited. We’re going to have a very interesting mix of painting and photography, and I won’t give you any details as of yet, it’s just going to be really amazing talented artists that we actually haven’t shown yet, so it’s something to discover!

Theresa Byrnes, TBG

I’m privileged to have spontaneously met Australian performance artist Theresa Byrnes a few weeks ago while strolling down East 9th Street. What a remarkable person. I was walking home from an estate auction in Greenwich Village, and popped my head into what appeared to be an open gallery space called TBG (Theresa Byrnes Gallery). I entered the bright, colorful room, filled floor to ceiling with an abundance of kinetic paintings created by Theresa Byrnes and her mother and fellow artist Lorraine Byrnes.

Lorraine warmly welcomed me into the gallery. I felt like she was my mother, too! She and Theresa had recently debuted “Offspring,” their joint exhibition, with an opening reception that took place at TBG on July 30th.

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It wasn’t until I’d made my way to the back of the gallery that I met Theresa. She told me that the back portion of the space was her studio.

Theresa was one of the coolest-dressed people I’d seen all day. I immediately fell in love with her style and arresting smile. She was wearing a funky black hat, a pale pink punk-rocker style T-shirt, black jeans, and a set of badass red high-top kicks. Finally, there was her most unique accessory: her wheelchair.

Theresa and I spoke for close to an hour, getting to know each other. After reading more about her following our meeting, I found out that she has a degenerative disease called Friedrich’s ataxia, that causes progressive damage to the nervous system. I am incredibly inspired by how clear it is, from both meeting Theresa and reading about her, that she doesn’t allow the disease she lives with to define her or control her. She finds freedom in her work and nothing seems to hold her back from being her full, powerfully talented creative self. This fascinating article from The Villager can tell you a bit more about her story. I’m in awe of her.

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Theresa’s infant son, Sparrow, was with her in the gallery space. I loved the way her passion came through so clearly when speaking about art, creating, and her son. Her palpable joy and refreshing attitude toward life and art made me feel happy.

I am pleased to share a preview of her piece, “Being Two,” shown below.  I also invite you to watch this video interview, conducted with Theresa last year on ABC (Australia). It will give you a sneak peek of the amazing person and artist that I had the opportunity to meet face-to-face. Finally, I hope that if you’re planning to visit Alphabet City any time soon, you take a moment to stop by TBG at 616 East 9th St. between Avenues B & C to check out her work.

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