The art of Zoé Byland eludes time and space. Combining many traditional and modern influences, from vintage photography, film noir, graphic novels, superheroes and tattoos to classical genres of art history, she produces works imbued with a spectrum of meanings. Within this carefully constructed monochromatic universe, the artist juxtaposes subjects from the Victorian era with oftentimes jocular and surrealistic accompaniments, fusing past and present to question the nature of our memory, expectations and perceptions. Often obscured by disguises, her subjects invite us to contemplate the nature of identity and to think up our own narrative ideas.
Through her stunningly realistic technique, Byland created a highly believable world that draws the viewer in with its strange sense of sharpness and depth. Using paint and airbrush techniques, she gives her works a wonderful “out of focus” effect, further enhancing these narrative dream-like scenarios.
PRØHBTD chatted with the talented artist to find out more about her compelling practice. Byland discusses the range of contrasts in her work, the construction and deconstruction of identity, the important aspects of storytelling, her working process and much more.
Your inspiration comes from a wide range of interests, from character and graphic design to comics, animation, illustration and traditional art techniques. How do you articulate all these different influences into a unique visual language?
I combine the traditional and the contemporary, the classical and the subcultural. I like to use subjects from turn-of-the-century portrait photography because they are a timeless style of representation. I try to combine elements that fit with the underlying atmosphere of the image I am creating.
There are a lot of contrasts in your art, the old and the new, concealing and revealing, the construction and deconstruction of identity. What do you think is the effect of this unexpected interplay?
A fusion of contrasts or opposites is the basic theme of my paintings. The contrasts appear unexpected or are absurd. I guess the result is a certain timelessness and a dreamlike atmosphere within my paintings through this fusion of past, present and future.
Although your works evoke vintage portrait photography, they exude a curious timelessness. Could you tell us more about this collision of past and present?
I believe that, even though the present is built upon the past, it is not possible to objectively represent the latter. The past only exists in a selective stage form altered by memory. In my paintings, I want to create moments that elude time and space, in which history and the present day are blended together.
Storytelling and narrative are central aspects of your practice. In your opinion, what makes a visual narrative successful?
My husband is a screenwriter, and I continue to be amazed by the number of parallels between our respective lines of work. The rules of successful visual narratives apply to my medium just as much as other media. Just like a good story, a good painting needs an atmosphere that draws you in and defines the genre in which the narrative is taking place. In addition to a carefully crafted formal framework, drama and mise-en-scène play a role.
Your characters are often hiding behind their disguises but seem exposed and vulnerable at the same time. Could you tell us something about this duality of your protagonists?
Disguises are a central aspect of my work. The protagonists of my paintings do not reveal much of their character, so the viewer’s imagination has enough room to think of their own narrative ideas. I do the opposite of classical portrait painting by not showing the faces completely, so it’s a kind of non-portrait. Simply put, I think the masks we live with protect and expose us at the same time and are part of our identity. It’s up to each one of us to interpret or think about them.
One of the recurring motifs in your work is the space helmet with an Escher-like reflection of your studio. What is the place of this motif in your rich vocabulary of codes?
While the characters are placed outside, the reflection shows an inside scenario. This simultaneousness of the impossible is a recurring motif in my work on several layers.
I don’t deliberately choose symbols to convey a specific message⎯that part is up to the viewer. What I love about visual symbolism is that it can carry a story by speaking to deeper levels of perception and emotion. An image can be read in a variety of ways. I don’t want to limit this spectrum of interpretation by applying specific meaning.
Your pieces are executed using a stunningly realistic technique. Could you describe your working process?
As a painter, mastering my craft and being versatile in terms of technique have always been important to me. I value details, and I work with precision. I love the old masters as well as graffiti, so it was fairly obvious to me to combine traditional painting and airbrushing. I am fascinated by the aesthetics of historic portraits and use them as a starting point for building a new scenario.
Your work is currently on view at the Trace Gallery [in Zürich, Switzerland] in an exhibition titled Visionary Future. Could you tell us something about the concept of the show?
I think the Trace Gallery summarizes it very well here: “The works… revive images and ideas from the past. Yet they also depict future realities, as if space travel has been more than a dream. They make us think of innocence and of aspiration. And they make us miss our lost innocence.”
Which artists have inspired your work along the way and whose work do you appreciate now?
Most of all, I like the atmospheres and craft of Dutch Old Masters paintings like the Van Eyck Brothers, but I appreciate and love the work of many contemporary artists, from comic artists to graffiti artists. Also, I’m inspired by works that contextualize paintings with other media.
What’s next for Zoé Byland?
Next will be the LA Art Show with the Corey Helford Gallery in January, as well as solo shows at the Haven Gallery in New York and with the KochxBos Gallery in Amsterdam in April. I’m very much looking forward to all these projects.