January – February 1994
ARTISTS + COMMUNITY: JUDY BYRON
The National Museum of Women in the Arts Washington, D.C.
May 21 – August 15
by Dinah Ryan
The idealist's position is at best a precarious one. Against the backdrop of real events and the heightened cynicism they inspire, it seems a tattered garment-flawed and easily dismantled. Yet, Judy Byron takes just such a position again and again in her various projects, whether she is dealing with inner city neighborhoods (as she did in her interactive "Neighbor Projects") or the varied concepts of home (as in her curation of the "Home" exhibition at the Arlington Art Center in 1992). Her recent solo exhibition at The National Museum of Women in the Arts is no exception. The second artist to be featured in the museum's "Artists + Community" project, Byron included woodcuts from her two most recent series, "One to One" and "We Are Your Sons and Daughters." And while it is easy to find some faults in both the logic and the execution of the projects and exhibition, it is impossible to deny either the compelling affection for the subjects or vibrant directness in the work.
Byron has taken up in her two most recent projects the arguably difficult task of entering the diverse worlds of individual urban teenagers in a way which would offer them bridges of understanding, compassion, self knowledge, and achievement (or hope for achievement). In "We Are Your Sons and Daughters," which was represented in the exhibition by four 68" x 48" woodcuts, Byron interacted with youth groups from four community centers, schools and/or neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. "One to One" was repeated twice, once in the fall of 1992 and once in the spring of 1993. Each time, Byron worked with four individual teenagers at a time, first separately over a fairly tong period of time, then bringing the four together. The eight 68" x 30" woodcuts resulting from the two segments constituted the balance of the exhibition. The exhibition and the projects express Byron's motive to combine, as she out it, "my desire to communicate visually and my desire to have some impact on society."The interactive process remained basically the same in both projects. She first visited the individual or group in a favorite or familiar place, taking black and white and Polaroid photographs (the Polaroids are given to the subjects). Out of these photographs came composite drawings of the subject(s) which were transferred onto large scale-virtually life-size-plywood. The prints were made through rubbing with pastels, crayons, and colored pencils the surface of pieces of pliable hemp paper which were placed on the block. Throughout the creative process, the teenagers visited Byron's studio to critique the emerging portrait and to participate in writing workshops with Rebecca Rice in which they were encouraged to express their ideas in journals. At the completion of each print, the youths were asked to select statements from these journals and to graffiti them directly onto the surface of the print. In the case of "One to One," the process was lengthened and deepened to permit a closer, stronger, and more effective bond to develop between all of the participants, including Byron.
Typical of her democratic approach, Byron arranged for a percentage of any sales to be given back to the kids or donated to a charitable institution of their choice. And, the woodcuts from "One to One" which were exhibited at the National Museum of Women in the Arts were simultaneously displayed in less airtight settings than the museum, ones which are more generally frequented by teenagers and their peers, including the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and the Cineplex Odeon Wisconsin Avenue Cinemas.
The format of the work is largely uniform with the figure(s) occupying most of the ground (in the one exception the figure dominates by occupying the foreground). This device allows the individuality of the subjects to come through via details, textures, colors, and patterns. Though static and posed as in formal portraiture, the works reveal the self-identifying cultural details that are the trademarks of the teenager: baggy jeans and plaid shirts, scruffy boots and expensive Nikes with bunchy cotton laces hanging down onto the sidewalk, funky hats, and fringed leather jackets. It is portraiture that rises far above the stiffness of pedestrian efforts to simply record outward appearance; instead, the works become, like Velazquez portraits, elaborate cultural documents that reveal identity but transcend the merely personal. The straightforward glance of the subjects is caught with true compassion and affection, each one saying something different and providing a remarkable composite understanding of urban teenagers.
Some of the differences are arresting. Eddie, whose handwritten journal excerpt recounts his traumatic experience in the hospital after being hit by a car at age 9 , stands hunched against the frame wall of a building with his hands in his pockets, his expression slightly tentative and questioning. Julia, on the other hand, stands straight-backed in an elaborately patterned jacket, before a giant spray of richly yellow grasses. Her arms are at her sides and her face is direct and firm in contrast to her own statement, "I am a woman and a student and an artist and a writer and I'm almost always confused." The other participants have graffitied onto the piece, "Do you have fun and relaxation?"
The contrasts between some of the group portraits are even more intriguing since two of the four groups--Chinatown Neighborhood and The Latin American Youth Center-are all male and two-Rachel's Group: Wilson High School and School Without Walls-are coed. There are distinct differences between the two types of groups. Although a range of difficult issues and emotions are expressed by all of them, the all-male groups are by far the most intense and physically disengaged from one another and, in the case of the group from the Latin American Youth Center with their remote faces, crossed arms, and clenched fists, almost angry. By contrast, there is a looseness and a companionable physical closeness within the coed groups-all the angles of arms and legs turn inward as if the group itself provided a safe haven.
Byron's working method in the studio retains the spontaneous look of drawing and her woodcut rubbings, with their rich colors and textures, have a sense of immediacy, vivaciousness, and warm friendliness. This is echoed in a kind of sad, good-humored irony in the eyes and the statements of the young people in her portraits. Byron cuts pretty close to the difficult issues with which they deal daily.
Artists and arts organizations tend to engage in social reform in ways which are intuitive and which risk, as in this case, the danger of simply picking the kids up at one point and dropping them abruptly at another. Byron has tried to mitigate this risk to some extent by establishing a longer term mentoring program in which at least three of the "One to One" participants will continue to be involved. She admits, however, that there is no way to track these kids once they leave the initial project and that the project, at its lowest level, could come down to no more than "something we went through together."
The power of the work and the honesty of Byron's motives deny any cynicism that could make us doubt the artist's combination of aesthetic effort with an attempt to have an impact on social relationships and problems. This is the weakest element of Adams' otherwise articulate essay: she invokes idealistic hopes for both project and exhibition instead of providing them with a strong defense. Her truest statement resides in her assertion that "Judy Byron employs aesthetics to encourage faith in our collective potential as a community" In the end, it is the genuine idealist's stubborn faith and honest motivation which impel us to believe in their vision and which relieve us of doubt. Byron accomplishes this through both her quiet, unrelenting commitment to her ideals and through the strength of her work.