Penny Byrne’s relationship with her medium is complicated – as both conservator/restorer and defacer/mutilator she alternates between lovingly preserving antique ceramics and mercilessly butchering their cheap, vintage cousins to create arrestingly provocative, often humorous pieces.
Growing up in Mildura, Victoria, where her parents owned an antique shop she was drawn to ceramic and porcelain from a young age. Byrne pursued her passion by studying a Bachelor of Art (Fine Art Ceramics) at RMIT University in Melbourne in 1987 and a Graduate Diploma (Ceramics and Glass Conservation and Restoration) at West Dean College in the United Kingdom in1990. As such she she is amongst Australia’s finest ceramics and porcelain restorers, and works regularly in the field.
In 2005 a small act of restorer sedition (adding a pink bow to a porcelain antique) marked the beginning of her artistic career, and since then she has produced dozens of pieces and exhibited extensively in Australia and internationally. Her work is characterized by the jarring fusion of kitsch ceramic figurines and plastic action figures (often dismembered and reassembled), decorated by enamel paints, glass, grains, her father’s chicken’s eggs, plumbing parts and other disparate materials. The aesthetic can be grotesque, however there is an irreverent humor in the pieces that elicits a smile where you might least expect it.
The crux of Byrne’s art lies in the issues she tackles; from global warming to land-mines, the GFC and Sarah Palin, her commentary is often keenly critical, confronting the viewer and forcing them to engage with the work. The garish, startling first impression made by the pieces entice and amuse us, opening the way for a more subtle message to be conveyed. The end result is complex, charming and mildly disconcerting at the same time, and therefore absolutely worth seeing.
Penny Byrne’s works are currently on display at the the Museum of Australian Democracy, Canberra as part of the Political Porcelain exhibit and her solo exhibition Comentariat is on at Warrnambool Art Gallery. Byrne is represented in Sydney by Sullivan + Stumpf gallery.