Penny Byrne, Maddestmaximus (2009), originally uploaded by mxccuba.
It’s a little surprising that Australian Art Collector isn’t all over this, or hasn’t at least been profiled. Her bitter-sweet ceramics are regularly described as requiring a closer inspection to reveal that there’s something amiss; something which may appear ubiquitous and innocent from a bygone era is actually dark, humorous and subversive. Really, they’re pretty blunt. A ballerina wields a samurai sword, It’s Murder on the Dance Floor (2010), a boy wears army fatigues, and fey gentleman in breaches and hose are painted the bright orange of American, including Guantanamo, prison jumpsuits.
Byrne reworks vintage porcelain figurines of the 1950s. Such decorative ornaments, literally useless, are both kitsch and conservative. Byrne transforms them into objects that take on conservative politics, current affairs, social and environmental issues. A practicing conservator, Byrne applies these specialised skills, in her own practice, to chopping off the heads of Dresden figurines and action men. Smashing, sawing off limbs, painting camouflage garments, adding army helmets and weapons.
Byrne points out, “I won’t destroy important decorative art… But the vintage ones, which are poor copies of the original, I think they’re just asking for trouble.” (From Joyce Morgan, Sydney Morning Herald, March 6 2007). But the very act of distorting and reconstructing, risking the sanctity of the original object propels us into unfamiliar territory.
Byrne’s subversive ceramics are provocative reconstructions of our complacency and complicity. Their irreverent elaboration, and sometimes even their price, is very desirable. For ILL-Gotten Gains, Byrne’s last exhibition at Sullivan + Strumpf, she was insistent that the small Gitmo Bay Souvenirs be accessibly priced. Almost fulfilling the very definition of souvenirs, the works highlight our experience of atrocities as witnesses from a far.