Essay: John Eric Byers
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John Eric Byers, Painter


by John Perreault


Just as there are some people who won't eat a serving of unidentified salad greens - let's say the various cutting ‘lettuces', ranging from butternut to the Japanese mustards -- unless provided with the names of each tasty leaf, so there are some who will not look at art unless clearly classified. Is it painting or sculpture? Is it furniture or design? If neither or both, then what do we call the art in question? Unfortunately, labels are lenses that many person seem to require in order to see.


When looking at John Eric Byers' new artworks, at first you might think you are seeing a grid of tiny tiles. But, no, closer inspection reveals that the squares are in low relief, separated by incised, intersecting lines The small squares thusly delineated are painted individually, with only one exception, in equal numbers of six of seven different colors, the seventh used as the "field" color. The one exception is one of the two large paintings (95" x 59") that uses all seven colors. The color squares in all six 59" x 49" paintings, the two larger ones, and the smaller paintings that Byers showed me in his studio are deployed in such a way that they create an over-all field and do not optically recede and advance as colors tend to do.


Neo-Plasticism? Only at first glance. The squares are more or less equal and, in the over-all view, particular. They do not bounce around like the unequal, composed rectangles of late Mondrian, in such paintings as Broadway Boogie-Woogie.


Byers' squares are oddly serene. We are not seeing the roar of nature or the pushing and shoving - the push and pull, in Abstract Expressionist parlance - but the infinite variety. We are looking at a wall, not a playing field. Or if a field of play, then one that is beautifully detached and a kind of paean to universal plentitude.


We are looking at field paintings, rather than cubist paintings. The squares of color are locked in by the congruent tonalities and the richness of surface. If there were an equivalent sound, it would not be a fugue or the syncopation of jazz, but an harmonic hum; not counterpoint, but a resonant chord. We could call these rules-based paintings; we could call them later-day systemic painting. We could call them beautiful.


Byers' painted bas-reliefs come from left field. In the last two decades painting has been killed off by the so-called return to painting. This, translated, means an ambitious tradition has been reduced to second generation pop art and/or so-called Bad Painting. This theoretical return never had a pay-off, possibly because it posited  parody, quotation, "bad" subject matter and "bad" paint-handling as painting's salvation. Abstraction was scotched, with the exception of a few really "bad" abstractionists, in favor of  mass-media mediated representation, with or without irony.


Byers' new works show there may be a  way out of this cul-de-sac. This dead zone of was created by letting  theory rather than spirit create value.  If we define painting as the application of colors to a two-dimensional or mostly two-dimensional plane, rather than limiting the term to paint on canvas or, more rarely, paint-on-walls - then painting may have some life left in it yet. If it is too difficult to change the meaning, then change the means, which, in effect, changes the meaning.


Because Byers does not come from a painting background, he is not burdened by the current, neo-academic strangle-hold on painting. The specific problems that his exceptional problem-solving abilities address may be unique to his particular practice, but his methodology is of a larger significance.


Byers' zigzag into painting might initially be confusing to the art furniture folks  and then, for different reasons, to the painting and sculpture crowd.


For the first, his move could be seen as an abandonment. After all, Byers has received considerable recognition for his accomplishments in art furniture, not the least of which was a mid-career retrospective.


Byers is well-established as a furniture-maker. His signature "language"  has stood him well. Typically his  minimalist cabinetry is inflected with regular - but not obsessively regular - gouge marks, sometimes inside as well as outside the geometrical forms. The latter, as far as I know, is unique in furniture-making. Color in his most celebrated work is sometimes black, but mostly the creamy white he achieves with multiple layers of casein or milk paint, an endurable water-based paint that preceded oil paint as a household staple.


Up close, the subtle painterliness of his layerings of milk paint can be identified as the cause of the subliminal luxuriousness.


His comfortable but modest  farm house outside Ithaca, in Upstate New York, is a notch environment. Not only are there prime examples of his studio furniture -- a dining table and various dressers and cabinets -  the doors beneath his kitchen sink, a large floor to ceiling bookcase and all of the woodwork is similarly painted and gouged. His house could serve as a modest, single-artist museum of sculpture-for-use.


In the world of painting, there may be a territorial defensiveness. The art world is currently stymied by MFA requirements. Hardly one emerging artist in any of the periodical surveys now proffered by museums is lacking an advanced degree. Hardly one artist is without an ill-crafted, opaque, thousand-word defense in terms of what passes for art theory.


Let those who have eyes, see; let those who are worried too much about categories sink.


Not only is Byers repositioning himself, he is rethinking the grounding of two-dimensional abstraction. He is not parodying Neo-Plasticism, he is extending it, by factoring in the tactile and the subtle paint-handling occasioned by the difficult casein medium. He even seems to embrace some of Mondrian's spiritual intentions for art. The work is contemplative.


But why, one may ask, has Byers moved from furniture to painting?                                     


Corrective surgery on ailing shoulders and surviving a divorce may have had something to do with his move to two-dimensional expression. Nevertheless, I suspect that sooner or later he would have outgrown furniture in any case. His paintings are not that much less labor-intensive than the furniture, per square inch. They still require sanding and layers of paint, and if not gouging, then certainly incising. There is, however, a release of new energy and creativity. Painting without the crutch of cabinetry is a new challenge for him.


Byers  told me he was uncomfortable with the fact that the furniture field does not embrace the beauty of irregularity. That beauty is central to his aesthetic concerns. He pointed out how irregular his gouging has always been, which, after thinking about it, I myself hypothesize as the root cause of the liveliness even his most simple cabinets occasion.


I remember seeing my first painting by Mondrian in real life, as opposed to in photo reproductions.  The lines were not all that straight or sharp and in fact looked decidedly handmade. These factor contributed to making the Mondrian so much better as an art experience than other, later,  neater examples of Neo-Plasticism nearby. Or take the brief but once highly valorized Finish Fetish abstract painting that came out of the West Coast in the Sixties, based upon - or so rumor had it - art magazine reproductions of East Coast painters like Barnet Newman. In real life, the West Coast paintings are "dead," whereas a Newman with all its "flaws" in view still sings.


Considering all these factors, the logic of Byers' move from art furniture to painting is entirely persuasive. The surface treatments of his signature furniture now stand on their own, but transformed. They have morphed into relief paintings that garner all the objecthood that was once the mission of advanced painting after abstract expressionism, but do so in a new way.


The grid of each painting is incised and painted with a uniform ground, of one of the seven-colors of his consciously restricted pallet: red, yellow, blue, green, orange, white and black. The resulting squares are then painted in each work with six or more layers of the six remaining colors, an equal number of each distributed randomly and/or intuitively, no color abutting a square of the same color.  


Both formalist painting of the ‘60s and Byers' new works have their roots in craft traditions such as anti-illusionism, truth-to-material, and the innate expressiveness of procedures of making.  In the case of formalist abstraction, this antecedent is usually repressed. Given Byers' background, this cannot be the case in terms of his turn to painting.


But where do Byers' paintings fit within contemporary art classification systems?


Even if we yield, as we should, and call them paintings, what kind of paintings are they?


The viewer searches for touchstones in contemporary art that might aid in interpretation; but they are wonderfully scarce. Some might initially think Pattern Painting would be one such reference. Pattern Painting is represented by the P for patterning in the term  P&D, the D referring to decoration. Because of the restricted colors, the strict grid, and the formal tensions created, Byers' painted reliefs - representing full-fledged attacks on several categorical templates - these paintings are hardly decorative. To qualify as Pattern Painting, motifs must be used in regulated intervals. And although patterning is built upon grids, the grid itself is not a pattern---or if so, a very dull pattern indeed. When quizzed, the artist himself maintains that Pattern Painting was not his intention. Motifs can of course be geometric, vis a vis Islamic patterning, but the squares created by an equal number of equally spaced lines intersecting at a 90 degree angle can hardly qualify as motifs except in the most minimalist way.


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Art furniture --- usually one-of-a-kind, primarily made by the artists themselves, signed, but like ordinary furniture intended for use --  has a distinct history dating from the worldwide Arts and Crafts Movement, which, of course, was a reaction against mass-production and an attempt to return to values of craftsmanship suddenly threatened by mechanization. It was also a concerted attack on hierarchical ways of classifying art. It remains to be seen if its late manifestation as what might be called the Art Furniture movement has, like its antecedent, seen better days. The problem with fine art (or it's doppelgangers like Art Furniture) is that styles and movements are finite. Fashion and creativity moves on, leaving a trail of also-rans. Byers made the last cut.


He is one of the best of the second-generation Art Furniture artists.


His language is all his and far above the Po-Mo shenanigans that had captured the fancy of furniture-makers - and fine art furniture collectors -- across the board. Byers managed to marry formal severity with a richness of finish not  seen before. I think his cabinets are destined to be seen as furniture classics.


Now, by jettisoning function --- which, is, after all the traditional, defining distinction made between furniture and sculpture --- Byers is free to further investigate surface and color removed from composition and form, but bringing his crafts sensibilities and well-honed virtues to the arena of painting and all the paradoxes that this entails, in the process revealing the contemplative, perhaps even metaphysical underpinnings of his stately use of repetition. Now, however, the repetitiveness, enlivened by the deployment of colors, breathes.


Painting is in trouble, particularly abstract painting. When irony dominates and predisposes marketability, abstract painting has a handicap. It does not illustrate; it displays. It does not  lecture;  it demonstrates. Very few colors make good jokes. Furthermore the belief systems that spawned abstraction have been demythologized.  But the main difficulty is that art schools have moved on to meaner pastures. Thus the field is wide open for outsiders to cultivate old gardens. By turning his back on three-dimensional art, Byers is free to investigate his furniture surfaces in themselves, standing alone as themselves, becoming----paintings. Having become paintings, his art is fresh. He is offering a new perspective on the dialogue between the optical and the tactile.


Snyderman Gallery, Philadelphia, 2009


John Perreault is an art critic, artist, and poet. He was the art critic for the Village Voice in the late ‘60s and was the President of the American Section of the International Association of Art Critics. He now writes regularly at


John Eric Byers, Untitled Table

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