Penny Byrne: The porcelain vandal - Art Collector

Issue 64, April - June 2013

Ceramic conservator Penny Byrne puts her porcelain skills to use by transforming pre-loved kitsch into political statements. She talks to Edward Colless.

Djambawa Marawili, Baraltja, 2010 (detail). Earth pigment on bark, 63 x 173cm. Courtesy: the artist, Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre, Northern Territory, Vivien Anderson Gallery, Melbourne and Simon Anderson.

Looking at the distinctive and assured signature style of her work it comes as a surprise that Penny Byrne began her professional artistic career only about six to seven years ago. And she readily admits she was utterly innocent about contemporary art back then. Her story has a touch of fairytale to it: Byrne put a work - her first art work, she declares — into one of the open access Linden Gallery postcard shows in Melbourne, which was reviewed and fortuitously illustrated with her entry in the back pages of Artlink in 2005, where it was quickly noticed by Sullivan & Strumpf gallery. “The rest, as they say,” quips Byrne, “is history.” Several years, however, is hardly history; but there was certainly significant momentum behind this entry point, which explains the ready confidence and immediate aplomb of her artistic style and invention. Byrne actually has worked as a professional ceramic conservator for over twenty years. Knowing this, the ironic games with historical meaning and value in her composite porcelain and plastic figurines suddenly makes a kind of sense, as if with a wicked or mischievous wink of the eye. Here is the conservator turned vivisector - conducting mad surgery on them with chisels and saws, and performing impish as well as malicious dress-up charades with these objects that, in her other life, would warrant the highest respect and duty of care.

Well, maybe not the care of the conservator: despite initial appearances, these figurines are not exactly antiques. Penny Byrne salvages these castaway ceramic figures from op shops and through e-Bay trawls, and they’re usually what most people would call junk: mass-produced, loved at first then unloved, forgotten, discarded, abandoned ornaments. However, she’s not a treasure hunter with an eye ready for spotting that eighteenth-century Meissen work lost among the trash, nor is she even simply looking for a bargain. What attracts her to these decorative fantasy figures is their attitude of jilted pomposity, their disowned cultural pretensions of elegance and etiquette. In the factories where they come from - preferably, she says, in Taiwan or Hong Kong or Japan - the artisan who models them is often working only from a photograph in a decorative arts book, so the modeling will be undefined, and as the mould wears out, detail is degraded. They might occasionally slump a little in the kiln. The facial features are painted on in an industrial routine that, combined with the other accumulated minutiae of accidents and economic neglect in the manufacturing process, is bound to create flaws that can verge on caricature. “The figurine’s facial expressions,” she tells, “can end up being quizzical, quirky even bizarre at times.” Again, Byrne is not in pursuit of the poignant individuality of the talismanic lost toy. She knows too well that these figures come in multitudes of wretched anonymity like a cheap labour force migrating from across a border. The border between art and kitsch. That is the circus behind the political cartoon gags, with which she titles her tableaus: that each of these figures can be replaced, overwritten in a barely legible palimpsest like the graffiti and stencils and paste-ups that she has been meticulously documenting for some time now on a building halfway between her home and her studio.

The political satire often remarked on in her work is like such a piece of graffito. A slogan, a jibe. But what lingers disconcertingly—and more persuasively—is the macabre sensibility for violence that savours the civil unrest she records and sardonically com- memorates it in the fabrication of ostentatious and tactless souvenirs. Decapitations, amputations, limbs blown off, disfigurement, disemboweling... in some respects her scenarios have the adolescent ferocity of sadism found in the Chapman Brothers - but hardly their cynical vulgarity. “I grew up working in my mother’s antique shop in Mildura,” says Byrne, “and I loved it. I was surrounded as a kid with bric-a-brac and ephemera, and my studio is like that now. I had a broken antique Dresden ballerina that my mother had given me. She told me if I could fix it I could do whatever I wanted with it. It was my starting point as an artist, my first work.” With her skills as a conservator Byrne attached a model bloodied samurai sword, in homage to
Kill Bill; painted on a profusion of gore issuing from what was transformed into a horrifically dismembered body; and titled it Murder on the dance floor. An artistic initiation is com- memorated in an act of transfiguring violence that eliminates the competition: the antique object, the inheritance of conservation. It’s a crime of passion, and the blood-debt doesn’t look like letting up. In late May Sullivan & Strumpf take her work iProtest (shown last year at Linden Gallery) to Art Basel: Hong Kong. Among the porcelain figures of riot police and lovers attempting to kiss through gas-masks, there will be a number of new, metre-high figures in polished and painted bronze. “I’m upscaling my work,” says Byrne, “and I’m terribly excited.” They’re coming off the mantelpiece, and they’re coming our way.

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