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Psychedelic Painter Connell Patrick Byrne Draws on Prog Rock, Weird Science, and a Lot of Stuff In Between

Cover Band: The album-cover vibe of Connell Patrick Byrne's "Sails in the Desert" makes it seem like a familiar tune, but the artist plays it particularly well.

By J. Bowers | Posted 8/20/2003

Apocalypse in a Teapot

Beveled Edge through Sept. 13

From Andy Warhol's work with the Velvet Underground to Stanley Donwood's collaborations with Radiohead, album covers have always been one of art's most interesting cooperative forms--a pleasantly parasitic union that can help a visual artist gain exposure from a recording artist's popularity, or vice versa, or both. Sounds great in theory. But, for the most part, no matter how well-done or passionately realized an album cover might be, the music within steals the spotlight. The cover artist's work is reduced to packaging status, turned into promotional posters and tour T-shirts, and unable to break away from its musical context or gain recognition as an independent work of art.

Luckily, Baltimore-based painter and sometime album cover artist Connell Patrick Byrne has a context all his own. True, his new exhibit at Mount Washington's Beveled Edge, Apocalypse in a Teapot, makes much of his association with the local prog-rock outfit OHO, which has used Byrne's art for three of its album covers. And yes, there is more than a little rock psychedelia evident in his work, with its heavy reliance on bold, blink-inducing fluorescent colors and pseudo-religious imagery. But Byrne also used to work as a mural painter at the Maryland Science Center, presumably providing backdrops for exhibits about animal anatomy and outer space, and he hasn't forgotten any of his science lessons.

As a direct result of his unusual artistic background, Byrne's work is best when it straddles the line between trippy Pink Floyd-style imagery and scientific accuracy--a combination of styles that often yields playful results. In "Yesterday," for instance, an anatomically stunning fossilized Tyrannosaurus Rex chases a cream-colored Volkswagen Beetle through the gate of a sand castle. With its hyper-real blue skies and bold, white-capped azure sea, the image is too pretty to be a nightmare, but too weird to be taken at face value. "Bio-Landscape" combines textbook-quality images of jellyfish, anemones, and a horned beetle with a magnified strand of DNA that coils toward the painting's horizon line, blurring the boundaries between water and air.

There are echoes of classical art in Byrne's work as well, most evident in "4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse," which features the four horsemen, rendered in opaque green, blue-black, red, and white acrylic with gold accents--an attractive contrast to the piece's fiery red-orange background. The composition of the horses, complete with flared nostrils, suggests Roman sculpture, but the riders' skull-like faces make them seem more like heavy-metal icons than harbingers of doom.

Similar conceptual missteps occur in pieces like "Wonder Woman," which depicts a not quite Alex Grey-ish earth mother carrying a fetus in her transparent womb, and "The Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary Man," which relies on too many garish, layered colors and too much gold paint in an attempt to impart a sense of transcendence. Byrne fares better when he scales things back a bit and concentrates on nonhuman subjects. "Sails in the Desert," for instance, depicts a painstakingly detailed, big-bellied ship as it sails across a sandy desert. It's a familiar song, but one that Byrne plays particularly well, with convincingly wind-swollen sails, bright--but not too bright--colors, and an expert's eye for the natural waves and curves of sand dunes.

"Endless Summer," the cover art for OHO's new CD, Up, hints at Byrne's mural-painting background, with a busy composition that includes many whimsical surprises, such as a squid hovering among a fleet of hot air balloons and a line of Easter Island-style sculptural heads. It's a bright, sun-drenched beach piece, something that looks like it could be used for the cover of a children's magazine, and yet another example of Byrne's stylistic schizophrenia. He can't seem to decide which niche he wants to pursue--traditional landscape painting ("Bermuda Studies 1 and 2"), psychedelic anatomical studies ("Wonder Woman"), animal portraiture ("Hornbill"), or the creation of archaeologically influenced, dreamlike worlds.

But at the end of the day, Byrne's unwillingness to fall into any one category is probably his strongest asset--unlike artists with "signature" styles, Byrne can adapt his techniques to suit his subject. Accordingly, Apocalypse in a Teapot doesn't adhere to any particular theme, unless it is viewed as a trip through the artist's wild psyche. In any context, however, Byrne's paintings are visually appealing enough for viewers to embrace the artist's diversity and attempt to forge their own connections between his many styles and subjects. Oho, indeed.

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