Nicholas Byrne paints like he’s flipping through several art history books at once – one on the Rococo (sinuously directive curvature), a second on mid-century English painter Graham Sutherland (centralized, gnarly, semi-abstract figures), a third on mid-1940s Willem de Kooning (game attempts at elegantly wild linear brushstrokes), etc. – but he alloys his reference points proficiently enough that you can’t bust him for burglary. In this, of course, Byrne is hardly alone. Aesthetic larceny is a non-issue in 2010, unless you only pilfer from one source. The stakes are elsewhere. They reside broadly in what you assemble from your haul, in what seemingly new intensities (not to be confused with ‘ideas’, since it’s not 1978 anymore) you can get to spark between varieties of the old, in how you deploy that which is held to be tasteful and argue intrepidly for that which currently isn’t, only to make it tasteful too. This might, admittedly, be another way of saying that the stakes are fairly low.
Soft Stylus (2009), the first painting one encountered at Vilma Gold, is middleweight Byrne, which is to say it feels like the general cultural weather. The gaze acquiescently travels the looping architecture of a complexly bulbous form, scratched confidently into the paint (hence the reflexive title, assumedly), which threatens to identify itself as something figurative but only puts one in mind of a deployed set of French curves. Byrne fills in this structure to varying degrees, turning it rich and agitated in its upper quarters and spectral below, where the background – a variable scrim of ochre-dashed deep blue on a ground of abraded copper – constantly shifts and squirms. One is led on a linear track through diverse regions of ambiguity, and this mechanism will trundle on until one looks away. There’s no actual point of apprehension to arrive at, only a bouquet of pleasurable eyeball tickles and the increasingly careworn comforts of painterly unknowing.
Byrne has arrived at this point with admirable velocity and tenacity. Look back over the last three or four years, and he seems to have reprised Modernism’s dismembering of representation within his own work: a process that’s ongoing here as he works out some kind of algebra of bodily presence and absence, rehearsing different formulae. Along the way, he juggles a deliberately finite range of elements with some skill and boldness, and not much in the way of outright repetition: Sailor (2009), an upright, seemingly cackling figure against a cerulean background, seems at first one of the stiffest of the bunch, but up close it’s fairly explosive, bristling with radial marks that make the whole seem to be shaking itself apart. The barely-there collation of concertina’d limbic references on a mustardy ground in Garland (2010) pushes this impulse to the point of virtual dissolution. Byrne, so the accompanying literature asserts, is overarchingly interested in initiating and pausing instances of flow and flux, and porting this over to the process of reception. Accordingly, the one sculpture here, Curls (2009) – a four-sided, mild-steel structure propped on one corner, its panels containing neat systems of decorative whorls – plays out the counterpoint of movement and stoppage in the paintings in a different but complementary register.
Still, for all that one can see these notions instantiated in the work, there’s a quality of reserve and knowingness about much of what Byrne does that makes it obscurely resistible. Only in one of the 11 cases here does he produce a painting that’s actively miasmic, and bigger than its embedded arguments and inferences. Flickering in Collars (2009) doesn’t require any supporting armature of thought to make one fall into it. Its structure is essentially of a set of nested, superimposed teardrop shapes, though figure and ground are more deeply interfused here than anywhere else in the show. Byrne gives the outer droplet-shape dimensionality with some curving traceries, but spatiality within the whole is crazed, lurching capriciously outward and inward. Some sort of candy-striped pole lurks in the background, but doesn’t deliver any unfolding sense of logic. Little about the painting references a body – or offers any real synoptic signposts – except for the colour, which is obscurely fleshly when it isn’t just palely glimmering or interrupted by luscious high-chroma bursts. The intimations of construction and collapse, flow and cessation, knowing and unknowing are here – but they’re subsumed into something larger and less schematic. Flickering in Collars is intensely articulate in a foreign language, and seems to have blatantly outrun its maker. If Byrne is diligent, brave or just lucky, that’ll happen more often.