A brief artist statement at the beginning of the Art Institute's Byron Keith Byrd retrospective includes this declaration: "I am inspired by numerology, rhythmic, primitive markings and archaic symbols, and I selected each painting to indicate the passage of time." I get the first part — Byrd's canvases are dotted with numbers and symbols that hint at some sort of hermetic system. They're like dreams waiting to be decoded.
But there's also more than a little irony here. The Malibu-based artist's vibrant, mostly large-scale abstractions seem to be not so much about the passage of time as about time standing still. And the expansive point in time they reference is the period from the mid-1940s through the 1950s, when such abstract expressionists as Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock ruled the roost.
That's not to say Byrd's work is nostalgic. Rather, his densely layered canvases recall the assertive (some might say strident) individualism of artists whose art was, above all, about its own making. This is painting about painting — art whose narrative is an existential drama that plays out before us strictly on its own terms.
In other words, like the original abstract expressionism, this is either/or art. Either you're willing to accompany the artist on his admittedly sometimes indulgent excursion into self-expression or you choose to stand on the sidelines wondering what all the fuss is about. Count me in the former camp. I found most of the nearly two dozen paintings in this solid little show captivating.