John Patrick Byrne, playwright, painter and printmaker, is 80 this year. Glasgow Print Studio celebrates this landmark with an exhibition of works he has produced there since the early 1990s, including a substantial number of works made this year.
Byrne has been prolific and continually creative throughout the years, and the displayed works occupy all of the first-floor gallery spaces and part of the ground floor too, with works grouped in themes: ‘Patricks‘, Harlequins 1998/99, cats, homages to Picasso from 2001, angels, and recurring self-portrait heads. Works range in scale from the miniature ‘Star/Face‘ at a couple of inches square to large ‘Patrick‘-era works such as American Boy. Many are editioned prints of 10, 20 or 30.
The subject matter of his early works (signed ‘Patrick’) is instantly recognisable – stylised reclining boys in costume, waving long pennants, with fish and animals. In these beautifully-detailed drawings, such as Boy with Carp, 1994, the viewer can imagine a story of their own.
In several eras of work he has interpreted the theme of his younger and older selves, including Don’t Look Back, a 2020 work which contrasts young John and today’s John, facing each other almost in side profile against a bright colour block background of blue and yellow. Today’s John has both profile and a Cubist-style altered perspective, showing the left eye almost looking out towards us.
There are several versions of self-portrait heads, often he is smoking enthusiastically and wearing a stripey jumper. Here is a subject he has come back to many times in paintings and print works. Recent works are much looser in drawing style, for example Red ‘Kerchief 2020 with a fresh bold blocky sky blue coloured backdrop. The Yellow Hat portrays the favourite headgear of John, which he has referred to as his lucky hat. The distinctive hat also appears in Brief Encounter and Moustachio.
Cats are present in works across the years too, and in 2020 with three works which sit comically side-by-side. Three Cats raises an instant smile, Byrne’s humour shines through in a brightly coloured screenprint where one of the three cats is dressed in silk boxing shorts, the other two in mini kilts. It almost looks as if the characters could have appeared in The Beano or Dandy.
Tutti Frutti is here, as revisited in 2016 in a highly colourful screenprint with mixed media – a rock n’ roll work relating to his much-loved BBC Scotland television series first broadcast in 1987. Guitars have been a recurring motif for Byrne. Featured here is Still Life with Guitar like a homage to Picasso and Harlequin with Guitar a precise work amongst his harlequins series.
Byrne has often hand coloured individul prints in gouache, pencil or watercolour. A recent work showing a single hand, entitled Tattoo is an edition of hand-coloured screenprints with a number of different names portrayed on individual prints of the tattoo. (These can be seen online but are no longer on the wall.) 2020 works like these are notably looser and spontaneous in style, with bright fresh blocks of colour, where works of the 90s are very finely detailed. Perhaps Byrne is more impatient to get the essentials across today.
John Byrne at 80 is a truly inspiring cross-section of works across the decades, demonstrating beautiful draftsmanship, masterly printing techniques, storytelling that stirs the imagination and the characteristic Byrne wit, making the viewer happy to have seen them. Print sales have been brisk, perhaps many of us are looking to have that work that raises a smile at home, as an antidote to life outside the front door just now.
No appointment necessary to visit the exhibition. Social-distancing measures are in place, sanitising gel available throughout the galleries, and you will be asked for contact details.
With grateful thanks to Gordon Reid for this review.
See also Artmag’s web post.