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Bryan Byczek Reinvents the Portrait

On the New York artist’s “Visage Series”

May 14, 2019

Featured artists

Bryan Byczek

In this series, the curatorial team presents one work from the Meural art library we find essential. (See all installments.)

HelenBryan Byczek
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There’s an experience I believe is universal, which not many people own up to. It’s the anxiety felt when introducing someone to a group of friends, colleagues, or acquaintances. No matter how close you are to each individual, there’s a risk that, in the moment, you won’t remember someone’s name. They might be your best friend, you might talk with them daily, think of them all the time, and yet, when obliged to, you can’t for the life of you figure out what they’re called.

The phenomenon is disconcerting. It makes us think we might not know a person nearly as much as we think we do. But perhaps it should point us in another direction: Names don’t really have anything to do with a person at all. It’s easy to forget that names, like handkerchiefs and ham sandwiches, are a human invention.

There seem to be two problems that make names, well, forgettable. The first is that when we think of our friend Helen, really think about her, we’re thinking about all those things that are much more complex, innate, and abstract than a name—things that are too complicated for language, even. The second is that each person is someone else to every other person. The person Helen is to me will be different (perhaps radically so) than the person she is to you. With his “Visage” series, a Meural Exclusive commission, Bryan Byczek creates a new way of identifying people, solving both problems along the way.

EgonBryan Byczek
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The “Visage” series is, in Byczek’s own words, “an exercise at visualizing through color and form the nature of interactions and mental impressions left by those who have affected me in various ways including friends, characters, artists and family. The aura-like portraits reflect a mood and feeling those individuals have impressed upon my memory.” It may sound abstruse, but really it’s the most instinctual way of naming someone: refusing to push their identity through the meat grinder of language.

Some readers may think of Christina Lonsdale’s Radiant Human project, though that ultimately relies on someone’s visual likeness, not to mention the mechanical and chemical interpretation of a real, physical environment (not unlike mood rings, which are objective interpreters of temperature). Byczek’s project is not only more abstract and intentional, it’s more personal as well. We not only see Helen as a kind of hued energy, we see her energy only as Byczek does.

Perhaps this isn’t Byczek’s intention, but I see his titles—the subject’s given name—as a challenge of sorts. Which is better or more comprehensive: the image or the name? It’s no contest. A “Helen” can be anyone. How different are the energies of Helen of Troy, Helen Keller, Helen Frankenthaler, and your great aunt Helen? But Byczek’s depiction, however indescribable as it may be, paints someone finely wrought. I see an extrovert, someone who’s passionate, buoyant, effervescent, serious, and perhaps a bit mercurial. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m still imagining someone specific. The same goes for each of the five works in his “Visage Series”. I can sense what type of person Egon is, that his modus operandi is to not have a modus operandi at all. And who better to trade some gossip with than Mariko? At least that might be the case if I was Byczek, if I knew Mariko at all.

MarikoBryan Byczek
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I’d once heard someone remark that for the mediocre artist, all portraits end up being self-portraits, and all self-portraits end up showing nothing of the artist. Byczek avoids this pitfall by flipping the paradigm on its head. Finally: A portrait that fully admits the artist’s hand.

Andrew Lipstein, Head of Editorial