Andy Byers is a multi-faceted artist with an incredible resume including photography for Diane von Furstenberg, Oprah, American Express, and design for the Ace Hotel, CFDA Fashion Awards, and Victoria’s Secret. Byers grew up in a small town in Missouri with no real art surrounding him, so when he attended the Kansas City Art Institute, his mind was blown as he discovered sculpture, minimalism, conceptual & performance art, and art history.
He’s a hardcore music buff, recently finished reading some killer rock n’ roll biographies, and he’s even in a band himself (check out Allelujah).
Art Zealous loved catching up with Byers to hear all about his past, present and future projects.
Art Zealous: Artistic background & influences?
Andy Byers: I grew up in a small town in Missouri between Kansas City and St Louis – I thought Van Gogh and Monet was all that art really amounted to. I painted a ton of flowers as a teenager. It’s actually all I painted. Art really was a musical thing for me more than a visual one. Growing up in Boonville MO, my best friends were artists to the greatest degree and we played music together, listened to the Flaming Lips and Pearl Jam after school, watched bootlegs of Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails over and over and obsessed over drum sounds and weird recording methods.
I’d spend the night on the weekends and we’d pour over SubPop catalogs memorizing everything they put out and figuring out how best to spend our next 20 dollars. I thought Sonic Youth was really what art was. As I said, it was a sonic thing more than a visual. I went to art school at the Kansas City Art Institute, and my mind was blown.
Van Gogh was and always will be a great love of mine for his manic genius and relentless desire to create God’s beauty through oil, and also his ability to capture the Holy Spirit on a canvas! But other influences like Chris Burden, Rodin, Cy Twombly, Mike Kelley, Bernini, James Turrell, David Hammons, Meissen porcelain, Dadaism, Kiki Smith, Paul McCarthy try to capture beauty in an and excel in the power to move someone. Whether it was in alchemy, shock value, disgust or harnessing the spirit of God through marble carving, they all spoke this overarching truth about the power of art and what it can convey to the viewer.
AZ: Currently reading?
AB: I just finished reading Here There and Everywhere by Geoff Emerick, the engineer for The Beatles starting at Revolver and moving through Abbey Road and beyond with Paul and Wings. It’s the best thing I’ve ever read. I couldn’t stop. His insight into arguably the greatest records ever made is just astounding. To hear how Strawberry Fields Forever was made and recorded is a total game changer. I made my wife listen to that over and over after I read it. I couldn’t get enough.
Before that, it was the biography of Willie Nelson, probably the greatest and most prolific songwriter of our time next to Bob Dylan. I’m currently reading George Harrison Behind the Locked Door. Did I mention I’m a music fan?
AZ: Aesthetic in 3 words?
AB: Ritualistic, performative, intuitive.
AZ: Favorite piece of art ever collected.
AB: My favorite piece of art we own is a tough one because we own a lot. My wife, Sara, and I have a huge love of collecting Native American art. There’s something about it that speaks to what we can never do or make. It’s beautiful beyond compare. It’s mystical, magical, basic and intricate all at the same time.
My children’s art inspires me the most though- I love it so much. It’s so genuine, so naive, so real, so their own. I am constantly fascinated by it. They’re both incredibly good painters and you can certainly see their parents influence their creativity but it’s also exciting because it’s like, “God this is pretty damn good and she’s 6!”
I also own this little Meissen bulldog made of a brown stoneware I purchased on a trip to Berlin that I certainly covet. It’s magnificently carved.
I also own a photo album that has purple velvet on the back with a gorgeous painting of deer on the front made around 1890 that is by far the one thing I would grab if the house were on fire.
AZ: You have an incredible resume, what’s been your favorite project to date & why?
AB: Green Porno was certainly a milestone in my career. It brought together so many things, costume, set design, art making, music making, collaboration. I love all of those films and working with Isabella Rossellini was pretty unreal. She let me do whatever I wanted. I also gained a great friend through those years creating the films in art director and producer, Rick Gilbert. He’s probably one of the most incredible people I will ever meet in my life. Incredibly talented and taught me almost everything I know about how to make a movie.
What I love most, though, are the performances I create with friends. It usually incorporates everything I just stated above, but it’s with my own vision and no one else’s. There’s nothing in the world like performing, be it music or art, in this case both. My favorite and most successful was Goodbye Brooklyn, a performance made right before I left Brooklyn created with all the people I worked with throughout the years living there. It also was a goodbye to my cat, Big Daddy, whom I dearly loved but could not make the trip to California with us as she was so old. I had to bring her back to her previous owner who took care of her until she passed. We danced, played music, laughed, cried, I made it snow, I made a full-scale puppet of myself, we filmed it all in front of an audience in this beautiful art space my friends, J Bell and Mike Perry, created. It was a once in a lifetime experience for me.
AZ: You design art for sets, hotels, store windows, award ceremonies, film & museums. How does your approach differ from project to project?
AB: Each project receives its own narrative and set of rules. Sometimes it’s really off the cuff. Sometimes it means months of planning. I try more and more to do things in the moment rather than design something that takes weeks to create as it’s not as fun to labor forever on something. I like to make it, put it up or shoot it and throw it away, never to be seen again. It’s all performative for me.
That’s one thing I loved about window display. You go in at 9 pm with a crew and revamp the entire store which requires hard work usually on ladders with lights, tying things to the ceiling with fishing line, and no sleep. It’s pretty dangerous stuff as far as art making might go. You leave the store when the sun rises the next morning and go home, crash, wake up late in the day and go back to walk by the window to see what you and your team created the night before. It’s almost like a dream. And then in a month, it’s all in the dumpster! It took a minute to get used to putting all that work into something and then seeing it go away but now I don’t make art unless it can be done in that fashion. Or at least I try to create something with that spirit, working in the dream world, very fast, pulling things out of thin air to create an imagined vision.
AZ: You design props for lots of magazine photo shoots. How do you design art that will fit with a certain ad campaign / model etc.?
AB: For campaigns and ads there’s always someone above me calling the shots. There’s always tons of money at stake, so that means more planning, more meetings. It’s often a fun result but can be pretty tedious.
For the Oprah shoot, the photographer saw my set and kept asking for more and more ferns- more more more. It was driving me crazy. We had worked like mad in the studio for two weeks straight building this paper forest and all he kept saying was more ferns! In the end, you hardly see half the work we put into the day on set, but we created this incredible environment for Oprah to step into. I learned a lot that day about setting the tone, creating the vibe for a situation.
Photos and film are funny because it only has to look good to the camera. You as a viewer don’t have the chance to walk around the art to inspect. Making the space really feel immersive changes the actor or character’s tone. They respect the work in a different way and give a different reaction to the camera. I want to make sure I’m feeling satisfied with the world I’ve created, not just set up the shot and walk away.
AZ: What is your favorite medium to explore?
AB: Film is still the big unknown to me. I’ve started down a path I’m carving out for myself, but there’s just so much to discover. That’s why I love it so much. Film is still an ocean of possibilities waiting to be explored.
In terms of creating art, though, I love working with what’s at hand. It’s almost always more interesting that way because you’d never think to use a cardboard box and a wine bottle with a candle in it to make a lamp but somehow it works and looks great. I love things like that.
AZ: Currently working on?
AB: Right now I’m in Marfa, Texas working on a short film which will be a music video for one of our artists on the label, RF Shannon. My wife and I started Cosmic Dreamer Music with the intention of creating a platform for artistic expression and making music videos for our artists has been a staple in that realm.
The film is about the Trans-Pecos Pipeline cutting through beautiful western Texas. It’s the artist’s comment on a Hopi prophecy given about this land and how it will change, possibly not for the better, in the future. It’s like nothing I’ve ever done before, and I’m proud to be down here working with him and the small crew who are all helping to make this vision come alive.
I also just shot three other videos in the same week with another artist, The Dan Ryan, down here for his new record which is going to destroy the US. It’s so incredibly good.
AZ: What can we expect to see from you in the future?
AB: I’m recording at the end of this month with my band Allelujah to prep for our next full length which is all about my family and my love of the land around me.
I also see a performance in my head inviting people to come into a cubed and mirrored space with me so that I can create a portrait of them out of clay, photograph the work immediately after it’s created and then present the portraits around the gallery that the mirror box is in. I’m pretty excited about that one.
Follow Andy on Instagram @allelujahhallelujah.
all images // courtesy of the artist. Originally published March 2017.