The first time I visit Jason Byers’ Bushwick studio, the walls are covered floor-to-ceiling with black and white paintings of churches, all soon to be framed for an upcoming exhibition. The space feels like that part in every thriller movie, when the detective’s work spills into his personal life. Like evidence, theories, leads, and loose ends, Jason’s paintings are hanging.
“Bethel Park Drive by Negative” features a simple white cross on top of a church in the middle distance. In the foreground, a richly textured sky is snug against surrounding forest. In the painting’s opposite, “Bethel Park Drive by Positive,” the edges of black trees appear to billow into a blinding white night on either side of the crucifix.
Each picture consists of only two materials: tar carefully applied to sheets of heavy paper. Either the landscape is tar, or the church is tar. Whichever isn’t tar is paper. The artist is obsessed with lines, or more specifically, the dividing line between landscape, architecture, and atmosphere. By carefully observing a line—the edge of a steeple, a street, a tree branch—and committing it to paper, Jason tells his own version of a creation myth. The philosopher Edward Casey writes, “What is the horizon but that factor in everyday perception that embodies the cosmogonic separation of Earth from Sky?”
The second time I visit Jason’s studio, the churches are gone and in their stead is one tar painting of birds on paper. This piece is from his series “Love Birds.” It’s the only one still in the artist’s possession after a successful exhibition at Garis & Hahn Gallery.
In this series, Jason is less fascinated by lines and more with the relationship between figures. In each painting two birds tussle in complex poses, suggesting struggle, or passion, or both. After all, isn’t distance a condition of intimacy?
We must embrace space in order to smash it.
Both the churches and the birds seem like natural successors to Jason’s earlier body of work—targets. The target pieces consist of hard-lined figures—weapons, skyscrapers, people, corporate logos—multiplied, with their bases arranged along the inner perimeters of circles. Where the artist’s churches interact with broad skylines and landscapes, these repeated figures all converge at single points. Convergence conjures movement. Contact. Touch. Like the bird paintings. In one target, four silhouettes of Cleveland’s BP building face a panicked ghost.
Formal interpretations aside, what’s funnier than a ghost who’s anxious?
On a spring night I hang out with Jason at a rooftop party on the Bowery. One World Trade Center is behind him, shimmering through fog like a new myth. We learn that in the next week or so we’ll coincidentally both be on the same plane bound for Los Angeles. Soon a bizarre narrative emerges: The aircraft is going down. We see each other across the aisle and smile. I thumbs-up Jason as he says “Groovy times!” and we both welcome impending disaster. Soon there’s no us. Goodbye, us. There’s just a dumb hunk of metal plummeting across the sky and onto a greenish countryside in a purple-flamed eruption. Sunday church bell in the distance. A bird passes over the wreckage. Caw-caw, idiots. Shits, disinterested.
The third time I visit Jason’s studio is on a winter night in 2018. The walls are bare. On a table there are an array of colorful sculptures, featuring his birds and buildings, but also sharks and skulls and other-worldly sceneries. In one, a bird balances by its beak on a skull’s tooth. The skull itself is upside down, spongy organic-seeming material spilling from its cranium and forming the monster’s base. Jason calls these Frankensteins. The name is deliberately gothic, and drawing from Shelly seems like a fitting next step for him. Similar to the story of Victor Frankenstein, Jason’s obsession with life, death, and creation reaches an amalgamation phase.
We leave his studio and drink at a bar nearby. I ask Jason questions and he answers me. Not only do we discuss his art, I also learn about his childhood and the days he spent touring with Disengage, a legendary Cleveland hard rock band. After several hours, several beers, and one impressive kale salad, I’ve discovered a good deal about a great artist’s process and my friend’s history.
Below, under a series of subtitles, are things Jason said during our conversations. Each section can be read individually, or together as a continuous narrative.
On Becoming An Artist
My dad was a major influence on me. He’s an artist, and his paintings and drawings look similar to mine…or I should say, mine look a lot like his.
Anyway, he was into comics, science fiction, and horror, so I would look at the things he had around the house, and they got into my brain. I started drawing superheroes, and then goalie masks, because they looked like superhero masks to me. I’ve played hockey the majority of my life. It’s a major part of who I am. But when I was a little kid, before I knew what was going on in the game, I knew I wanted to be the goalie, because he was a superhero. So that’s where it started, and it grew from there.
I started making targets after 9/11. I love the twin towers. I have a tattoo of them. I found them very attractive. The gothic architecture at the bottom. The minimalism. They were these monoliths, and they were very overwhelming.
When they were pulled, I had been messing around with drawing targets in my work, using a lot of corporate source material. After the towers came down, I had a strong urge to include them in something I made. So I made them a target, because that’s what they were. It was a success, in my opinion. Pretty soon after I saw this bizarre photograph of a kid holding a poster with the Sears tower on it, and beneath the building text that said, “You’re Next.” So I thought, Of course! and made a Sears tower target piece. Afterwards, I just did all of my favorite skyscrapers.
I’ve always been attracted to weapons, but to be clear, what’s attractive to me is the craftsmanship. I can’t imagine coming up with these designs. They’re mind boggling. The fact that they actually work is outrageous, and very upsetting, obviously. They’re terrible machines. But at the same time they’re beautiful. Like Frankenstein.
Additionally, my grandfathers were both in WWII. They never talked about it, but my dad has done a ton of research on his dad. So along with the comic books, that kind of history was always around: books on tanks, books on planes. Tanks are particularly exciting to me. The way they look. I made a bird seed tank. Made out of bird seeds. It will disappear eventually, but it was there.
On Punk Rock
I got into punk rock music when I was young. There was an older kid who lived three blocks away from me where I grew up in Pittsburgh. He gave me a Dead Kennedy’s tape and it just blew my mind. And luckily in Pittsburgh there was a great radio station out of Carnegie Mellon University that I listened to every Sunday night. The show was called “Ralph and Lenny’s Sperm Blast.” I will never forget that station. Not only is the name hilarious, but also it was such a heavy influence on me musically. Pittsburgh, too, was great at the time as far as touring bands coming through. I just went to any show I could. I had several friends who I constantly traded music with. Actually not several, because punk rock was still very underground at that point. It wasn’t even cool to tell people you listened to Metallica! So there were like five of us that traded music. And there was also a great record store there called Eide’s that’s still there. And great local bands. But it all started with my neighbor and “Ralph and Lenny’s Sperm Blast,” that Carnegie Mellon radio show.
Touring is hard, especially at the level I was doing it at. You have to play every day to make your gas money. You have to find a place to stay every night, because you have to play every night. You’re usually playing in a club with a shitty sound system. You can’t hear yourself so you blow out your voice. You have a party following the show. You wake up hungover, and immediately start worrying about your voice and worry about it the entire time until you get to the bar you’re playing that night. You do a sound check which is always terrible, and then you just wait. You just fucking wait until you get on stage, and still you’re worrying about your voice the entire time.
But while I toured, while I was on the road, I definitely came up with ideas for my artwork. I brought a lot of books with me, because you literally have to sit in the van forever sometimes, and a lot of the books I had were about architecture. So when I’d get to a new city, I already had everything memorized. I knew how tall that building was, I knew who the architect was. I learned all that from reading these books. I was obsessed. Sitting in the damn van for hours, I’d read about the building I was going to see later that day.
On Spirit Animals
Mine’s a pelican.
You know: flying, diving, swimming…
After several years of painting birds I decided to try them in 3D. It worked out pretty well so I thought, why not include some of my other loves, like architecture and weapons. So I began including those too, and combining them all together into 3D collages. On top of that, I thought this was a good area to include things that have aesthetic similarities to my main interests, but are not those things. So I kind of mixed a lot together, and began adding color, like I did with my bird paintings, which as you know were originally all in black and white too. I call this series “Frankensteins.”
On Being American
I don’t know if it’s conscious, but it is funny that I choose to create United States skyscrapers, United States weapons, American birds. I just keep going in that direction. You asked if I was proud to be an American and that’s a hard question to answer. I feel lucky to have been here. I feel lucky to have been born here. I think if I was born in Europe, I’d be luckier. But, my parents grew up in the US, so here I am. It’s embarrassing at times to be an American. Especially right now. Am I proud to be an American? I don’t know, but I’m doing the best that I can, given that I’m here. I feel like I’m making a difference in my own small way. I support causes I believe in. I donate a lot of money—I mean a lot of money for me—to wildlife conservatories and animal rescues, and the Wild Bird Fund, who do a really great job rescuing birds in NYC. So I feel like I’m making a difference in that way. I’m proud to do that.
On Art Mattering
Overall, yes, I think art matters, but I have my doubts at times. Sometimes I don’t think it matters at all. I look at the world and I’m like why am I doing this? I could be doing something else. But, all the same, it’s just in me. There’s such a drive to complete series’s and make work. Even though being in the art world at times, you’re like why? This is ridiculous. This makes no sense. You’re not saving the world, though you’re acting like it! It can be ridiculous, especially the money aspect of it. There are some artists who, after being famous for a decade or two, it stops mattering what they make. It’s going to sell no matter what, so there’s no thought to it. The assistants make the work. It’s so ridiculous, and disheartening. But at the same time, I know this is true for me, and I know it’s true for you, for my friends, there’s this drive, it’s in you, it’s natural, you were born with it. Art does matter in that way. You enter a zone, and you gotta make it.
On New York
There are times when I can’t even get on the train anymore. I have to calm myself down to get on the train. But that’s just part of a greater cycle. Maybe it’s two weeks where you just do not want to set foot on the train, and then it goes away and you’re fine. You know it’s going to come back. The anxiety is going to come back. So I have a hard time with that here. But, at the same time, I need the action. I need sensory overload. I need people almost running into me. I need cars almost running into me. I need the sounds. The sirens. That keeps me alive. When you go upstate, for instance, it’s so relaxing, but after four days you’re like, I need to go back. I need to hear somebody yelling in my ear.
On Being an Artist in New York
Support your friends. Trade studio visits. Criticize and take criticism. You have to just be optimistic, nice, and work your ass off.
I’m an optimist. Definitely. That might sound funny, given a lot of my work and a lot of what we’ve discussed. But no matter how dark something I make seems, there’s always a sense of humor in it. You might have to read it several times or look into it several times, but it’s definitely there, and I intend it to be there, it’s not an accident.
On Plans and Goals
I just want to keep going. ♦
Jason Alexander Byers is cool. Give him money.
Kyle Kouri is an MFA candidate in fiction at Columbia University. His stories have been published in Cleaver Magazine and Horror Sleaze Trash. He is also the Online Arts Editor for the Columbia Journal. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @kylekouri.