by David M. Roth
The term post-human has long been used to denote a future in which digital technology, artificial intelligence and bioengineering combine to render our brains and bodies superfluous. Dean Byington takes that idea and runs with it. His paintings, chock-full of dissimilar architectural forms set in and against unlikely geologic formations, contain no people, and for that reason, you could also call them post-apocalyptic were it not for the fact that such visions typically depict the human enterprise in ruins. Byington’s pictures do not. His current exhibition, Cassandra: Truth and Madness, shows man-made structures intact and in such profusion that they form what look to be alternate civilizations – of a sort.
The images, which resemble surrealist collages, derive from 18th and 19th-century prints and illustrated books that the artist photomechanically manipulates; in so doing, he seamlessly blurs the usual distinctions between urban and rural, ancient and modern, leaving the eye zipping from one non-sequitur to the next, finding stability in some things only to lose it among others. The overall effect, owing to a predominately silver-gray color palette (inflected here and there with strong colors), is that of a high-definition fever dream.
Though the paintings depict fantastical scenarios, they involve real things, the most notable being Bingham Canyon Mine in Utah and the Grasberg Mine in Papua, Indonesia — open-pit excavations so large they can be seen from space. They are the “stages” on which Byington’s stories unfold.
Windmills 2, for example, shows pyramids, workers’ shacks, smokestacks, industrial ducts, high-rise apartment complexes, warehouses, scaffolding, construction cranes, church steeples, water towers, and bridges to nowhere jammed together inside one such hole. Together, they form labyrinthine mazes that recall Terry Gilliam’s dystopian film Brazil. Other similarly conceived (but less complicated) pictures from the Colossus Series show movie sets built on giant scaffolds, below rest structures resembling Anasazi cliff dwellings. The stages tower above wide-open tracts of land like those carved by rivers and glaciers – an ironic spin on the view promulgated by landscape photographers like Carleton Watkins, whose glorification of the West helped pave the way for its exploitation.
Such contradictory leanings – apocalyptic, cinematic, romantic – have roots in Byington’s past. His parents worked in Los Alamos for the Manhattan project, and as a teenager growing up in southern California, he regularly explored old stage sets owned by MGM and Desilu Productions. Though such fantasy aspects dominate the show, the gloomier side of Byington’s sensibility ultimately prevails. We see it in two conventionally painted works: Oceans (Dream painting #5) and Extraction. The first depicts a flooded room
inhabited by a shark. The second shows ghouls straight out of Dürer crushing men’s bodies in a grape press, a scenario that equates, in the context of the show, mineral extraction to genocide. Next to it hangs a framed copy of Robinson Jeffers’ Cassandra, the poem from which the exhibition takes its title. It reflects what Jeffers called inhumanism: the belief that inanimate things deserve more affection than people since the former are destined to outlast us. To think otherwise, as Jeffers maintained, is to offend the gods. Based on climate science, whose dire predictions hover over the exhibition, I imagine Byington feeling the same.
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Dean Byington: “Cassandra: Truth and Madness” @ Anglim/Trimble Gallery through December 30, 2022.
About the author: David M. Roth is the editor, publisher and founder of Squarecylinder, where he has published over 400 reviews of Bay Area exhibitions. He was previously a contributor to Artweek and Art Ltd. and senior editor for art and culture at the Sacramento News & Review.