I saw this artist’s work at the Frist Center for the Arts in Nashville, TN and at first was unimpressed with what I took to be pastel color field paintings. Looking at them closer I was amazed at the level of detail and complexity, not to mention story telling, with each of these paintings. No reproductions do them justice, as the details are just too numerous to capture.
Art in America
by Jerome Tarshis
Berkeley-based artist Dean Byington makes only five to 10 works per year. Ranging from 4 to 8 feet in height, his oil-on-canvas paintings are filled with detailed renderings of grass, trees and flowers, which invite the viewer to read them as landscapes. Their flattened space has an all over quality akin to modernist painting, and their small, repeating elements suggest the additive character of a Chinese scroll. They belong to a tradition of picture making that undertakes to possess the world by sheer enumeration of parts and multiplication of detail.
Together with his labor-intensive drawing style, Byington’s use of a narrow, almost monochromatic range of color evokes the austerity (and also the authority) of printer’s ink. His compositions, rendered freehand and with stencils, are derived from 19th-and 20th-century illustrations. The rabbit in King and Queen, for example, could have been plucked from John Tenniel’s illustrations for Alice in Wonderland; in the same painting, the rats gathered around the corpse of a larger animal belong in some children’s book rather less high-spirited than the Alice stories. Byington’s work depends on our knowledge of cultural shocks and material spoliation, past and present. Nevertheless, these are not visits to a timeless Victorian nursery; while Byington’s paintings depict trees in leaf and flowers in bloom, they also have more than their share of stumps and bare patches of earth.
Through countless visually seductive paths suggesting nostalgia for the stylistic tropes of Victorian and early 20th-century engravings and innocuous evocations of menace, these paintings provide us with a few unobtrusive reminders that awful things have happened. Old fairy-tale books are still there for us, but Chekhov’s cherry orchard has long since been cut down.