London-based artist Oisín Byrne’s new exhibition is wild and wonderful, Sarah McDonnell discovers …
Oisín Byrne is pacing about his studio in Thurloe Square in South Kensington in bright red sneakers. He doesn’t have far to pace – at its narrowest point, this odd wedge-shaped redbrick building is just five feet wide. Built between 1885 and 1887 as artists’ studios, on the top floor is the space where Byrne, 39, artist, writer and film-maker, born in Dublin, schooled at Gonzaga in Dublin 6, forged as an artist at NCAD and Goldsmiths University of London, now makes his art. And his art is, what, exactly? Bob Dylan referenced Walt Whitman’s 1892 poem “Song of Myself ” in his 2020 song title “I Contain Multitudes.” It sums up Byrne. He draws, he paints, he writes, he makes films and he sings. His new exhibition, “Act Natural”, is an expression of who he is, discerned via many layers of his art practice and his person. I think it also asks a question of the viewer: why do I sometimes/often/always perform myself instead of being myself.
We are FaceTiming. It’s difficult not to be distracted by Byrne’s red sneakers, his yellow sweater, emerald green Adidas pants and bright pink nail varnish, even the orange Ligne Roset sofa in the background. He walks up and down with his phone, showing me his paintings. One moment I see his face, the next his back. He reads aloud to me. He sings a little.“I was a boy soprano”, he confides.
The odd wedgeshaped building in Thurloe Square where Byrne works.
Inside the studio, and the red sneakers. Photograph by Patrick Hough.
Eva Wilson, an artist and friend, who wrote the text for the new exhibition, which has just opened at the Amanda Wilkinson Gallery, works across the hall. “I can hear Oisín next door, rearranging his work, or on the phone. He usually arrives up the stairs singing, sometimes his own songs,” says. For the exhibition, he composed a song called It Could Be Worse and he plays it for me now. It’s his voice, but the song is sung by a rueful animated fox emoji. Amanda Wilkinson describes it as Byrne “performing but not quite visibly present”. Why do I feel sorry for the resigned /optimistic fox, I ask Byrne? “That’s the thing – the fox is a predator but he is also vulnerable. He performs too. I showed this to my friends’ kids and they sang along and danced. I love children and totally trust their instincts.”
“We all have to perform ourselves,” says Byrne. “The film director Declan Donnellan explains brilliantly how babies are inducted into performance from the get-go: abilities such as walking, eating and talking are developed through performance, observation and applause.” The exhibition title at first appears as a joke, he says, the oxymoronic command to “act natural”. “But there are more serious implications of the command. There are situations in which it is dangerous to be or to reveal oneself.” As a gay young person growing up in 1990s Dublin, as a shy boy who fainted when it was his turn to speak in a school debate, he is painfully aware of this.
“Having A Coke With You” is inspired by Frank O’Hara’s poem of the same name.
“I was a serious child but a playful one,” he offers. He was also creative, clever and well-read. Struggling a bit with the social aspect of school, he was encouraged by his English teacher at Gonzaga, Laurence Duffy, who introduced him to writers outside the curriculum – William Faulkner, Flann O’Brien, Tom Stoppard. “Most of my work comes out of reading and writing.” He reads voraciously, novels, essays, poetry. “Jasper [Conran, designer, his husband since 2015] and I are both readers – we read together.” Byrne’s own very erudite writing has been published in books by Pilot Press, MA Bibliotheque, Eros Press and Bookworks. “My parents also gave me huge artistic freedom, encouraging me to draw and paint, he adds. “In the art room at school I was comfortable and safe; at NCAD, with creative people in the middle of a city, I felt like I had found a home. Art has always been my comfort.” Byrne is grateful to gallerist Amanda Wilkinson who invited him to show all of the strands of his practice together in one exhibition. “She really saw my practice in the round. With her, I feel seen.”
Where it all began: Byrne’s notebooks.
Byrne’s notebooks are a key part of this exhibition. The audience stand on a bright, striped 3D-printed carpet – “yes, I made a carpet!” – which illustrates the edges of his notebooks, with fluorescent Post-it note tabs poking out, marking pages, busily mapping the artist’s thoughts. Rather than reveal too much, he presents us with images of their covers, marked with clues to what they might contain, enlarged and exposed to further elaborations as Byrne draws, paints and smudges onto the surface of the magnified prints in what he calls “night-time activity”, working and reworking his drawings with crayons, foundation, Vaseline and nail varnish. Paintings include self-portraits and tracings of Byrne’s hands and toes (he is here and not here) and others re-present the animated blooms from Byrne’s 2021 “Cut Flowers” series of large drawings of tulips and dahlias.
“It Could Be Worse”: Byrne’s singing fox.
“The flowers are Jasper, of course. I consider myself a city boy, culture over countryside every time. But during lockdown, in the countryside, I took nature and the beautiful things he grows seriously for the first time. He grew them and I began to draw them. It was a mark of respect.” The couple respect each other’s boundaries when it comes to work and they support each other. “I met Jasper at a wedding. He was standing outside the church in a cream linen suit and he looked like he was having the best fun of everyone. He grounds me. He is good at making things comfortable. When I work, I forget to eat. Until I met him, I didn’t understand the concept of a weekend. He makes things beautiful. He turns on the lamps.” We laugh. I get it.
Drawings from the “Cut Flowers” series, which were exhibited at Connolly, London, in 2021. Byrne’s work has also been exhibited at Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art, the Irish Museum of Modern Art, and Princeton University, among others, and is also in the Irish State Collection.
I ask him, thinking of the tulips and dahlias and the lamps, if a comfortable setting is a barrier to making good art. I think he doesn’t like the question, as his face clouds over. But he’s just thinking, he says, “trying to get a foothold on it”. A few days later, he sends me the essay that critic and writer Wayne Koestenbaum wrote for the “Cut Flowers” exhibition, which includes the lines: Prettiness is the terror that Byrne must evade, in his new études, because mere beauty poses a trap into which an up-todate transgressor must never slip. Mere beauty, that’s what I was getting at. But, Koestenbaum goes on, Byrne’s flower paintings, hospitable to our dejected state, understand that we need their pharmaceutical jolt because we want to remain engaged with the world, we want to keep our face pressed up against its glass … we might all find it practical to drink deep of a bright chromatic surge of optimism … a potion that will give us the mental clarity and moral decisiveness we need to keep the dying world green.
Beaming in from London, in his bright red sneakers and yellow jumper, with his beautiful open face, I see in Byrne vulnerability and playfulness and a deep chromatic surge of optimism. “To see my paintings, video, song, together is a particular kind of joy, a hectic joy. I am happy.” And although we have just met, I am indescribably glad. @byrneoisin
“Act Natural” is at the Amanda Wilkinson Gallery, 18 Brewer Street, London W1, until August; www.amandawilkinsongallery.com.