Taking shape

“We spend the first portion of our lives learning things — and the rest of our lives learning to forget them,” Gary Byrd observed recently over a beer in Semi-Public, the small Hillside Street contemporary-art gallery he co-runs with printshop owner Tony Bradley.

The painter, who’s been part of the local art scene for many years, finds considerable inspiration in the “work” of his toddler daughter, Alice, and admits as much with no qualms. “I love the completely uninhibited way she uses color,” he murmurs with a tinge of awe. And while the wonder of new fatherhood has liberated long-hushed hues from his imagination (“I don’t like limiting my palette [now]”), another experience in recent memory has seeped even deeper into his latest pieces.

Byrd recalls with veiled intensity the painful but exhilarating sense of deliverance he felt following the mammoth fire that destroyed the old Chesterfield Mill, a River District warehouse that sheltered many long-established art studios. The April 1995 inferno — so savage it was said to have melted tires on cars passing high above the warehouse on the I-240 bridge — “wiped out everything,” the artist reports. “For the first time in my life, I had all I owned under one roof, so I lost about 15 years’ worth of work: all my documentation, all my slides — everything. There could not have been a more complete erasure of someone’s history.”

His first response to the irrevocable loss was denial.

“I felt for a long time that I wasn’t even going to think about painting again,” he remembers, “but I didn’t really have a choice. It’s [my] primary means of communication. It’s just something that [I] do. So I started painting again, trying not to think about the fire, trying not to think about me — just trying to think about color, line, shape and that kind of thing. Just painting.”

The result of this creative regeneration, a series of oils and watercolors Byrd terms Witness to the Overflow, 1996-1999, is now on exhibit at Semi-Public. It was never Byrd’s intention to turn the Hillside Street house (where he and his wife and daughter also live) into his own private gallery; he purchased the building because it was inexpensive and suited his family’s needs.

“This is our home,” he says simply. “But I’ve always been interested in having a voice, in participating in the artistic dialogue of the Western North Carolina community. I’m not a political activist, I’m not a social activist — I’m an art activist.

“I [had] already [done] my time downtown,” he continues. “I was [looking] to get out of paying [studio] rent, and we got a good deal here — the fact that it had the possibility of an in-house studio seemed like a grand idea. And we’ve always loved this neighborhood: This is where we wanted to be.”

Then the artist discovered that the house held even more potential than he’d dared to imagine. In what amounts to at least one case for zoning, he learned that, although the upstairs was intended strictly for residential use, the downstairs studio space had legal commercial possibilities.

“This is one of the few areas around here zoned like that,” he notes. Before long, Semi-Public was, well, semi-opened to the public (the gallery, whose contents were once offered by appointment only, is now open four days a week). In its nearly three-year existence, the obscure, somehow defiant little gallery — which seems almost to preen on its street corner — has hosted a number of established artists.

One of Semi-Public’s first shows featured the work of Billy Malone, a New York City-based artist. But now, according to Byrd, “our primary interest is in regional artists, or in those outside the region looking to establish a collectors’ network [in Western North Carolina]. And we always try to set one [yearly] exhibit aside for student [work], because we believe in ongoing education of the artist.”

Witness to the Overflow is Byrd’s first full exhibit, anywhere, since the fire that claimed his life’s work.

“Although the figurative element is still there, this work is very different from what I was doing before the fire,” he explains. “In having to let go of so much, it kind of freed me up, and I was no longer afraid to do anything. I no longer had [my previous work] as a reference point — other than seeing a few pieces in friends’ homes and collections and things like that. I had no reference other than my memory. It freed me up, and then the color started happening. I was no longer afraid of color — there was nothing to risk, nothing to lose, so what the hell? That was a pretty cool thing, and I don’t know if it would have happened otherwise.”

In fact, “[If the fire hadn’t occurred] I’d probably still be making tired, muted, overworked paintings,” Byrd observes ruefully.

The first paintings he completed after the fire were a series of abstract watercolors whose hues, perhaps unconsciously, appear soft and drenched: Nestled amid the French blues and pale greens, even the reds seem saturated and restful — the shade of a cooling heart. But the oil paintings teem with a darker energy. Flourishes of bulldozer yellow, hibiscus pink and toxic indigo rear up in carefully layered canvases, and — almost without exception — each work contains the carefully stenciled image of a man.

Some of the figures are easy to spot — trotting bent-backed with purpose, or deftly evading vague, funnel-cloud shapes. Others demand more careful scrutiny: These “men” materialize with eerie slowness, shivering into view like ghosts.

“The figures have always been [in my work],” the artist reveals. “The figure just holds so much potential, psychologically. It all hearkens back to my formative years in architecture — in thinking in two dimension about an object that’s going to ultimately be realized in three dimension.”

(Byrd initially studied architecture until, as he puts it, “I took my first private watercolor class, and it was all over from there. Almost six weeks after my first painting class, my career in architecture was over. Then I was waiting tables, working at a liquor store, working as a fry cook — doing this, that, and the other thing. And learning about painting. It [became] my primary pursuit, although sometimes I’ve tried to fuse the work with some of my ideas about architecture. I’m real interested in man’s relationship to the built environment, in big buildings and how people inhabit them … how they react and respond to them.”)

Byrd appropriated the figures in his paintings from what he describes as “an anthropomorphic study of the measurements of man. … It’s what architecture is built around: the average man. [But] stance and gesture are all very specific to a psychological situation. … I’m not interested in rendering a highly stylized figure.”

At the time of our interview, none of the works in the exhibit had even been named. Byrd remains absorbed by the larger ideas behind the pieces, noting that to name a piece is to fix it within a specific context — to the exclusion of the other elements going on in the work.

“As documents of our time, there’s still room for exploration [in the figure],” Byrd concludes. “As we head along into the 21st century, we’re looking for new -isms and schisms, so abstraction is probably an overused word — and an underexplored idea.”

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