SAN FRANCISCO — For the past decade, an element of the sinister has lurked in San Francisco-based artist Dean Byington’s elaborately fanciful, Beatrix-Potter-run-amok paintings. Look closely at his detailed collaged canvases — amalgams of images reworked from a plethora of sources that include refined 19th-century illustrations, historical photographs, wood engravings, and the artist’s own stylized drawings and paintings — and you’ll discover swarms of rats battling rabbits, gardens of uprooted turnips, and mushrooms with angry faces. In his most recent show at Anglim/Trimble, the delightfully incongruous qualities of his previous work have coalesced around a subject worthy of his obsessive imagination: The Anthropocene.
Cassandra: Truth and Madness reflects our current geological epoch: a time when humankind is witnessing its handiwork, with all its beauty and horror, threaten to destroy the earth’s species and habitats. Many of the exhibition’s 12 densely configured paintings were inspired by photographs of the two largest manmade mines in the world: the Bingham Canyon Mine in Utah and the Grasberg Mine in Indonesia, both visible from outer space. In Colossus 1 – 4 (2022), Byington drapes a Frederic Church pastoral scene from a frame atop a raised platform in the center of these leviathan sites. The Colossus series of images, with their historical and sociopolitical themes, set the tone for the show. Church’s idealized landscapes embodied concepts of Manifest Destiny as a way of obscuring the ugly truth of American expansionism. In Byington’s hands, the contrast of layering one manmade construct atop another — Church’s sublime horizons arrayed like a tiny curtain over the giant open pit of the mine — accentuates the devastation that political narratives seek to veil.
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This juxtaposition of conflicting pictorial facades as a means of emphasizing obliteration is paramount to Byington’s work. His early childhood was spent in Los Alamos, where his parents worked on the Manhattan Project, helping to develop the atomic bomb. After the family relocated to Culver City, California, he spent his adolescence in the 1970s sneaking into the full-scale outdoor sets of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and DesiLu Studios. Drawing on the blast sites of the Nevada desert and abandoned scenery of movies like Citizen Kane and Gone with the Wind, Byington’s visual language mingles romance and theatricality with the disastrous consequences of climate change and environmental contamination.
In “The Letter” and “Oceans,” the artist’s dystopian terrains penetrate his cinematic interiors. As with the Colossus series, these images are barren of humanity. Two empty chairs in “The Letter” frame a window through which a section of cratered earth can be glimpsed. A crystal ball sits between the chairs — an oracle reflecting the climate crisis.
By the time viewers reach “Oceans,” that crisis is no longer a prophesy. It is an invasion — a rising tide that submerges the glamorous boudoir furniture. A shark glides across a swamped floor, and a stark-white light that brings to mind the flash from a nuclear blast illuminates the room.
Byington’s implication, his Cassandra warning call, reveals the world we know as a facade teetering on the brink of collapse because of human-driven mass extinction. It is a vision both devastating and breathtaking.
Dean Byington — Cassandra: Truth and Madness continues at Anglim/Trimble gallery (1275 Minnesota Street, San Francisco, California) through December 30. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.