Inspired by urban architecture, Hugh Byrne’s latest body of work (which will be on show at the Turbine Art Fair (Johannesburg) from 14th – 17th July) uses painting and sculpture to elicit a sensory response to the subliminal effects of our built environment. “Through my art, I try to interpret and present observations of my surroundings, of things many people would consider to be mundane,” says Byrne, “but the point is not for viewers to be able to visualise the same cityscape or architectural elements that inspired me… If my art elicits some kind of emotional response, then I feel I have been successful.”
ART AFRICA: Your paintings are inspired by urban architecture. As an artist based in Cape Town, how does your personal, lived experience of the city come across in your work?
Hugh Byrne: Cape Town CBD is very accessible. Although big enough to get lost in, it is small enough to walk from one side to the other in under an hour. Because of this, I spend much of my time walking on the street, getting a sense of the city’s atmosphere and investigating and documenting the many things that catch my eye: architecture, space, colour combinations, shapes, outlines, and so forth. This all ends up in my artwork, either consciously or subconsciously.
Please walk us through your process. How do you select your palette, for example?
Colour and form are both equally important in creating balance in my paintings. I work by drawing out a shape and assigning a colour to it, which then influences whatever comes next and is repeated until a balanced composition is achieved. I spend significant time planning my designs, trying out different combinations. Once I have started working with paint on the canvas, it is not that easy to change the layout. The colours, however, do change, from the colour palette in my original design.
Over the course of my career, the colours featured in my art have also shifted. For a long time, I liked working within a defined set of rules: I limited myself to working mostly with primary colours. I have since broken away from that. Today, my colour choices come from a variety of sources. Some are directly influenced by the surrounding environment, while others are more intuitive and created in the studio. I suppose they can be seen as a subconscious or emotional decision and in that way more personal.
Your colourful, layered compositions are quite abstract. It’s not always easy to visualise these cityscapes. Rather, they create a feeling. Is this intentional, and if so, would you say it is important to you that the images are read within the urban context?
Through my art, I try to interpret and present observations of my surroundings, of things many people would consider to be mundane. So far I have found that working with colour and in a hard edge style is the best way to communicate this. But the point is not for viewers to be able to visualise the same cityscape or architectural elements that inspired me. For this reason, I don’t think the pieces need to be read within the urban context to be successful. Instead, as you say, it’s about the feeling. If my art elicits some kind of emotional response, then I feel I have been successful.
Many of the shapes used in your work are recurring, a kind of personalised architectural language. How much of your work is still drawn from observation, or have these representations become more figural with time?
For the most part, my process is easy to follow: photographing architecture, simplifying and arranging the shapes, assigning colours and then using this as a starting point to begin an artwork.
But over time, certain shapes kept reappearing or standing out to me — so I stopped using photographs and sketches for inspiration and instead concentrated on the selection of shapes and colours in my visual vocabulary. In this way, I created a set of rules or boundaries to work within until I felt they had been sufficiently explored.
Recently, I have cycled back to the beginning of this process, to once again add to this personalised language by actively photographing and finding inspiration in my observations. These new visual elements are reflected in my latest paintings.
Please tell us about the new body of work that is going to be on show at the Turbine Art Fair? How does this work set itself apart from previous exhibitions?
I have two series of paintings exhibiting at Turbine — both of which are quite different to my previous work. Through the first series, I have started to explore a more collage-like style, which allows me to investigate the foreground/background relationship and build up a feeling of depth and movement. I have recently been quite influenced by shadow lines, grid work and patterns that exist in my day to day life, and these have found their way into my paintings too.
In the second series, I begin to play around with open space. Whereas my previous works have quite a lot of energy and give you the feeling of being on street level, in this series the paintings are calmer and feel more removed. The isolated collections of shapes are more like an urban landscape viewed from a distance.
Hugh Byrne’s latest body of work will be on show at EBONY Curated‘s stand (BM9 and BM11) at the Turbine Art Fair (Johannesburg) from the 14th – 17th July.