DEL MAR — Dental equipment. Ice cream scoops. Vintage metal hair dryers. Rusted airplane washers.
After more than three decades as a decorative finisher, Leucadia artist Thom Byrne has shifted his creative vision, transforming flea market miscellany into a collection of polished automatons for his upcoming “Steel + Bone” exhibit on May 26 at Folio Interior Design in Del Mar.
A self-taught artist who has earned international acclaim for his works specializing in abstract painting and mixed media, Byrne’s pop-up gallery will showcase his latest exploration into assemblage art, a medium arising from his love of rummaging for treasures at swap meets and garage sales.
“I’ve always gone to flea markets,” Byrne told The Coast News. “I’ve always been interested in shapes. I always built models and customized my own stuff. I look at things, and say, ‘Wow, that would make a great head or bust.’”
Byrne’s metallic robots, roughly the size of a toddler, are the result of countless painstaking hours of craftsmanship, each feature clearly defined in striking detail.
The idea for this project came toward the end of Byrne’s long and established career as a decorative finisher. Byrne’s work painting decorative murals, wood graining, sponging and glazing earned him high-end clients from New York City to Rancho Santa Fe and beyond.
Despite his success, however, at some point, Byrne said he needed a change.
“About five years ago, I just said it’s time to do something different,” Byrne said. “I got tired of painting and running a crew. It was time to do something I wanted to do. And I’d always been interested in assemblage art.”
After putting away the work brushes and turning to his vast (and meticulously organized) library of scrapyard curios, Byrne said his first droid, “Neobium,” who sits in ruthful contemplation, came together surprisingly quickly.
“My very first (robot sculpture) was an accumulation of years not doing what I wanted to do,” Byrne said. “It was magical. (The project) flew together. The parts I found fit without having to adjust them. I realized I can do this.”
The robot’s shoulders were formed with a pair of 1950s steel hairdryers and the rib cage was created with valves and other pieces of dental anesthetic parts Byrne had found at a flea market in Mexico City.
Byrne set out to complete several other metallic bots, but the subsequent works in the series proved to be much more arduous than Byrne’s initial creation.
For starters, aside from the head and accessories, each robot required two of everything, which can prove difficult to find when hunting for pieces at garage sales and flea markets.
Once the pieces are gathered, sometimes they don’t always fit quite right and create negative spaces in the sculpture, which Byrne then fills with epoxy, sanding them down to seamlessly blend the aluminum and steel components.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect is bringing these otherwise inanimate beings to life.
“I like pushing myself,” Byrne said. “I try to give them some sort of emotion, it’s evoking some sort of an emotion.”
One of the works featured in “Steel + Bone” is an African-style bust entitled “Vibayaba,” which is composed of engine parts, horns, taxidermy glass eyeballs and dozens — if not hundreds — of tiny airplane washers strewn along wires to represent hair.
The bust, while markedly different from the rest of the collection, signals the craftsman’s next direction in his artistic journey, who often bounces between artistic mediums and styles.
“The head sculptures of bones and engine parts are a little bit more fun,” Byrne said. “Often, I get bored with one genre and go to the next.”
The soft-spoken artist said the best part of assemblage art is giving the viewers a combined sense of wonder and confusion when observing his work — challenging people beyond pretty ocean paintings and straightforward imagery learned in art school.
“I’m hoping to bring something a little more than seascapes,” Byrne said. “When someone is looking at something and asks, ‘What is this? What am I looking at? Where do these parts come from?’ That’s probably my biggest joy.”
“Steel + Bone,” by Thom Byrne, starts at 6 p.m. on May 26 at Folio Interior Design, 1555 Camino Del Mar, Suite 105, Del Mar, California. Beer, wine, hors d’oeuvres, live music and guest artists will help celebrate the occasion. Sculptures are available to purchase. More information about Thom Byrne is available at www.thombyrne.com.