Byron Johnston: Dysfunctional Chair

Dysfunctional Chairs series
August 13, 2008 to January 11, 2009

Reality is nothing but a collective hunch.
– Lily Tomlin

Welcome to the experience of Kelowna-based artist Byron Johnston’s gigantic wooden chair. Far too high for anyone to sit on, it is certainly undeniably dysfunctional. A visitor might be reminded of the frustration felt by Alice in Wonderland with various things often being the wrong size for her. But this sort of disconcerting bodily experience is precisely the realm in which Johnston situates his art practice. For decades now he has been fascinated with human perception and information processing, and with our behaviour when encountering his installations and sculptures. He once summed up his direction as an artist by saying: “[My] work normally involves an apparatus or space that changes/enhances/intensifies the sensory experiences of the body.” 1

Trained in California in sculpture, Johnston returned to Kelowna – his place of birth – shortly after completing his MFA at the University of California in Santa Barbara in 1990. He began teaching at Okanagan University College in 1991. (In 2005 the College became the University of British Columbia Okanagan, where Johnston continues to teach.) By coincidence, the artist has assigned a “chair” project to his sculpture students each year for a long while, so the concept of working with the chair theme for this outdoor installation was not entirely foreign. It is not in keeping, however, with his usual themes and materials which have often involved apples and twine. In 1999, for example, he installed 10,000 real apples in the Kelowna Art Gallery’s same Rotary Courtyard space in homage to his grandfather, Byron McDonald who came to Kelowna to grow apples in the early 20th century. Using twine, he is given to creating repeated vertical or horizontal linear rows (like a kind of drawing in space) to direct a gallery visitor’s route, make their eyes blur, and give them something to twang to make sounds.

Johnston draws on a rich artistic legacy in sculpture/installation that began with Minimalism in the 1960s, when traditional sculpture had leapt down off its pedestal and began to move into the scale of architecture. Industrial materials, even the earth itself, became the new materials of choice, replacing archaic bronze or marble. What Johnston brings particularly to this “tradition of the new” is his own brand of wry humour and whimsy. One cannot help smiling when coming upon his work, as I am sure visitors to his colossal chair will smile – at the very least. I wish I had been there when Byron Johnston was on the construction site of the new bridge across Okanagan Lake a few months ago, trying to convince the crews that he needed the wooden trusses they had used in the building process to make a giant chair for the Kelowna Art Gallery. Johnston has a vital connection to life and to living, and this imbues his artistic production with an infectious energy. It is an absolute delight and inspiration to have the super-sized chair on site to launch our new series of Dysfunctional Chairs projects.

– Liz Wylie, Curator, Kelowna Art Gallery

End notes
1. Byron Johnston in an interview with Victoria, BC-based artist Mowry Baden in Byron Johnson. Kelowna: Kelowna Art Gallery, 1999, p. 18.

For our Dysfunctional Chairs series, The Kelowna Art Gallery acknowledges the support of the Vancouver Foundation.

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