Irish multidisciplinary artist Oisin Byrne is showing a series of paintings in the first-floor salon space of Connolly’s London store. As part of the show, Byrne is also designing clothes for Connolly, in collaboration with Irish designer Alison Conneely, and embroiderer Natalie Frost.
Cut Flowers is a series of vivid still lifes of tulips just as they begin to turn, their petals opening and their heads drooping. The flowers have a hyperreal quality, with exaggerated colours and dramatic, enlarged forms, bulging from their rotund, decorative vases, their feathery petals imbued with movement. “One weekend in Dorset I discovered Oisin’s paintings, overpowering all the other beauty that surrounds you at the home he shares with his husband,” says Isabel Ettedgui of Connolly. “Unexpected, wild, flowing colours – so drenched in vivid shades they were almost violent, the marks writhing and dancing across the paper. I never got them out of my mind. I am so very happy he has decided to show them with me.”
Byrne created these works during lockdown, revisiting them between stints of working on other aspects of his practice, including editing and performing films, and writing on themes such as the power of naming, and the twinned forces of intimacy and disgust. “Painting the tulips was a burst of physical energy between other projects, which were more linguistic and screen based,” says Byrne. “I had to capture the tulips swiftly – blooms that are very much alive and erotic but will soon perish. They move and stretch slowly before they collapse and the petals fall off. In the last moments they have this wild pre-death exuberance.”
Byrne’s work often begins as research and writing before evolving into film, performance, song or painting. “These flowers have a symbiotic relationship with other projects and lines of thought, and follow years of drawing friends and other artists,” says Byrne. These projects include his film work GLUE (2017) starring artist and collaborator Gary Farrely, which has been shown at Goldsmiths CCA, Salzburger Kunstverein, Lismore Castle Arts and the Irish Museum of Modern Art. “GLUE evolved alongside a series of essays I wrote that look at the power of the name: the name as insult, the name as invitation, or as verdict or curse. I wanted to think about the way a name lands on a person – and even if they ignore it or don’t hear it – it attaches to them. Gary’s character in GLUE plays these naming games with himself: ‘Hi Tulip. Hi Sunday day-tripper. Hi turnip toes.’ The tulip paintings relate in some way to this; I think they have some queer potential.” In a statement about Byrne’s work, curator Vaari Claffey expands: ‘Describing someone in Ireland as a ‘Tulip’ is either to say that they are probably homosexual or that they may be full of notions, unrealistic, prone to fancies.’
Another element of the paintings’ queer potential is in the tulips’ state of becoming something else; they do not have a fixed identity, much like the main character in GLUE, who says, “I don’t think there’s one me … I’m a federation of opinions”. “This is to do with how I think about painting generally,” says Byrne. “I want the paintings to look as if they are still being drawn in some way. They are still happening; they become like film in that sense, occurring through time and observation, as one bloom decays and is replaced by another. They are collages of time: each work is made across multiple or ‘cut’ pieces of paper.”
Accompanying Cut Flowers is an exhibition text by American poet and critic Wayne Kostenbaum. “Wayne is one of my favourite living writers. I really love his text,” says Byrne. “It sits alongside the works but is very much a thing in and of itself. It could be read without seeing the flowers and they, in turn, are illiterate, unaware of its meaning. I work with language a lot myself, but with these works in particular, I wanted to hand the writing over to someone else.”
Byrne’s flower paintings, hospitable to our dejected state, understand that we need their pharmaceutical jolt because we want to remain engaged with the world, we want to keep our face pressed up against its glass, with a fixed and mantic smile, as if to divine in the embers of pandemic the kindling of an implausible utopia.
Byrne makes songs using snippets of text that are removed in the editing stages of his essays – what he refers to as his “orphan sentences”. One such recording is It Could Be Worse, shown by Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art in 2020 as part of their pandemic programming. The repetition of the titular phrase allows it to gather new meaning, or shift sense, like a word that becomes strange and novel after turning it around too many times in your head. Perhaps Byrne’s tulips work in a similar way, their repetition shifting and developing new meaning with each iteration, a layered description of that moment of beauty just before decay.
Cut Flowers, an exhibition by Oisin Byrne takes place upstairs at Connolly, 4 Clifford Street, London — from 2nd of June until 8th of September 2021.