Lise Byer

Lise Byer

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Lise Byer: “Thinking of You, Dear” and Other Thoughts

 “Thinking of You Dear” (acrylic on canvas, 2010) is a new series of paintings from artist, Lise Byer. Each of the paintings depicts a figure with an object floating nearby, a compositional strategy reminiscent of a cartoon thought bubble or product placement in 1950s magazine advertisement. The figures’ expressions are a bit quizzical and ambiguous opening up the possible relationship between figure and object. The objects on the other hand are direct statements of its objecthood, simply stated and unadorned. The illustrative nature of these objects – brightly colored, flatly rendered, outline defined – pushes the cartoon quality of the work creating an interesting tension with chiaroscuro painted figures, oddly shadowy, masking the expression or giving the facial character a malignant intention. In one painting, a female figure in a blue dress with a sailor suit neckline smiles with her head cocked towards the floating image to her left. The direction of her gaze seems coincidental to the object, betraying the hand of the artist or alluding to the artist’s intended narrative. The figure’s flesh is painted in tones of grey that echoes and contrasts the weirdly eerie background of mottled moss green and ochre. The object to her left is a piece of steak, marbled to perfection, floating in a heavily outlined yellow ball. The artist’s juxtaposition of the figure and object stages the narrative, even leads it to a certain sarcastic or humorous reading with the title, “Thinking of You, Dear”.

The precedents for this work have been a continual exploration of technique, creating a dialogue among illustration, advertisement, and pop painting. From flat backgrounds and simple line drawings to fully rendered portraits, Byer adjusts her technique to find the appropriate material idiom. She has found a succinct voice with the use of acrylic on canvas varnished to a high gloss. Technically elegant, the new series “Thinking of You, Dear” reinforces the gloss, the façade of niceties while exposing its dark and shadowy undertones. Byer says, “I am trying to develop a higher quality finished look…more plastic and more vibrant…to make the color stand out.”[1] This technique allows her to achieve her desired aesthetic for a “better sense of style in more polished looking people.”[2] The vibrant palette of blush pinks, grass greens, butter yellows, baby blues of earlier works reflects the female subjects and objects habitation of a surreal realm of cartoon domesticity; happy housewives are portrayed with equally expressive kitchen gadgets. This early gesture matures in the latter works where the relationship between object and figure is more developed and narrativized with the color scheme becoming more somber and sinister.

The influence of pop art is quite evident in Byer’s body of work as seen in its source material of 1950s advertisement of domestic products, period specific pop cultural trends like the 1960s Mods or motorcycle racing. Deborah Solomon, columnist for the New York Times writes that “the celebration of the kitchen as the locus of the American dream spilled over into Pop Art, especially in its early years, when artists appropriated images of soda pop and soup cans as well as a general just-mopped, mess-free look evocative of the suburbs.”[3] Indeed, the early works of Byer have this “mess-free look evocative of the suburbs” yet she does not take the path to a political condemnation of capitalist or consumerist culture. Unlike Warhol who was schizophrenically challenging and seducing the market and stated “admissions of inner bankruptcy, express[ing] a loss of faith in the meaning of personhood,”[4] Byer’s approach to Pop Art is a recovery of personhood through nostalgic pastiche. Byer evokes her grandmother’s simplicity and elegance which she sees as emblematic of the 1940s and 1950s, that in her use of magazine advertisements from the period creates a process for the artist to contextualize her grandmother’s life by recreating certain moments, by flushing out memory, by filling in the gaps between family history, slowly reconfiguring her grandmother’s life through material recovery.

However, this project is not only relegated to personal reflection but can be seen as the way the artist is developing consciousness through popular culture; a consciousness defined by what we buy or possess. As Pop Art writes “the story of America [as] the story of how postwar affluence and the belief in luxury for every citizen gave way to a style of spending that kept expanding until a time close to the present, when the money finally ran out and people lost homes, jobs and their confidence in the future. The Pop artists were prophetic because they saw a new kind of America coming, a country where you are what you buy.”[5] Byer’s work is aligned with this notion but meanders from it from time to time arriving instead at carnivalesque scenes of the strong man or the vampy female performer, each expressing an anxiety of identity as signified by the objects they hold, going back to the notion of you are what you consume; to have a cupcake or to have a banana.

This anxiety of self with consumer culture is reflected in the shift of subject matter focusing on the Mods. Another nostalgic pastiche reworks the artist’s relationship with Pop Art and its consequent critique, an exploration of Mod rebellion and its bad boy antics. Cultural critics, “Shari Benstock and Suzanne Ferriss argue that at the ‘core of the British Mod rebellion was a blatant fetishising of the American consumer culture’ that had ‘eroded the moral fiber of England.’ In doing so, the mods ‘mocked the class system that had gotten their fathers nowhere’, and created a ‘rebellion based on consuming pleasures’ ranging from Italian suits and scooters to US soul records.”[6] Byer borrows this rebellious attitude and style for her series of motorcycle paintings where she depicts scenes recalling the highly fashionable Isle of Man races set against an abstracted background reduced to blocks and lines of color. It is here that we first see this floating heavily outlined circle that we see again in “Thinking of You, Dear”.

Lise Byer’s project is a simple exploration of how the elegance of the past can be reconfigured in the present. Through a method of nostalgic pastiche, Byer transports the viewers to another time yet keeps them conscious of the present moment or keeps them engaged in a continuing dialogue. The work does not provided a complicated picture plane saturated with objects or ideas but rather provides purposeful pairings or groupings that quietly mutters sarcastic and humorous comments under one’s breath.

[1] Taken from an email correspondence with the artist.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Solomon, Deborah, The Pop Art Era, New York Times Online,, [cited September 15, 2010], p. 1

[4] Williams, Robert, Art Theory: An Historical Introduction, West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009) p. 241

[5] Solomon, p. 2

[6] Benstock, Shari and Suzanne Ferriss, On Fashion, (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1994) taken from Wikipedia, [cited on September 15, 2010]