Zoé Byland: The Good, the Bad and the Batgirl

originally posted on January 22, 2012

© Zoé Byland

© Zoé Byland

Zoé Byland was the artist who first introduced me to the possibility of character design as a legitimate art form. We met when she moved to Vienna from her native Switzerland to join the “contextual painting” class I was attending at the time. Zoé still primarily lives in Vienna, teaching, studying and practicing art. Her paintings and sculptures are regular guests in galleries around Europe and abroad.

CW: I remember around a decade ago, when you first started working and exhibiting around Vienna, character design in its own context was not quite recognised as an art form yet. Despite the absence of sequential narratives curators tended to file your work under “Comics”, comic artists would then on occasion complain about this misrepresentation of their genre, and you didn’t quite seem to fit in with the more traditional painters at the academy either. Would you say a lot has changed since then?

ZB: I’ve not really been in that type of situation in a while. I’ve also been completely free of that pressure to constantly justify my work that academy students are usually under. I presume a lot has changed too, there are more graffiti artists attending art school now for example. A term that I encounter a lot these days is “street art”, which is ok with me because it is open to various types of styles.
It still feels weird when curators and others talk about my work using terminology and categorizations that I personally find unnecessary. I think that need to categorize and explain art will always be there though.
Character design, graphic design, comics, animation, illustration and traditional art techniques are equally inspiring to me. I love combinations and variety and I don’t want to restrict my own work using classifications of any kind.
Lately several people have written great texts about my work in which I managed to actually find myself, I was really pleased with that. When I’m communicating with the collectors who buy my work I also don’t feel forced to offer explanations, I usually leave it up to the viewer to find meaning or stories in my paintings.
I still don’t fit into a lot of concepts. But that’s ok, it means I am more autonomous from expectations in general.

In recent years you have started teaching character design at an art college. What are your students’ main interests these days – do they aspire to create toys, draw graphic novels, design games, become animators, graphic designers or even advertisers?

They come up with a lot of ideas for characters, they like doodling, they’re very playful in their approach and don’t yet work with any future professions in mind. Creating art at college is quite different from earning a living…
My students’ major influences are the Internet, games and TV. They have a much more relaxed attitude towards working with computers & the new media than my generation, digital design is a natural part of their work.

Who are the most important/inspiring artists that you use as examples in your classes?

Teaching character design to animation students, Pictoplasma are always a good reference/source of inspiration because of the variety of positions they represent.
We try to give our students space to develop their own style and the courage not to be perfect, to “fail” even. That’s where brilliant new ideas often come from. We don’t want them to just imitate a style because it’s popular at the moment – they bring in their own idols: mangas, Pokemon, Ugly Dolls, games, fantasy… we try to show them a wide variety of examples to draw inspiration from, or sometimes no examples at all – depending on the project they are working on.

© Zoé Byland

© Zoé Byland

The first character of yours I ever saw was Paulinchen, a starey-eyed little girl whose favourite pastime seemed to be swinging a dead cat by the tail. You generally appeared to be quite fascinated with somewhat dark and threatening children. Was there any particular inspiration for this, and is this fascination still there?

Paulinchen is a kind of mean alter ego. She’s like, totally unimpressed.
What looks cute at first side has the potential to deal with much deeper themes at second sight. This and the fascination for inscrutable, mysterious characters, humans or animals, is still part of my work. These humans and animals wear masks and sometimes have super powers – their identities are secret.
I was always fascinated by the evil and dark characters in fairy tales which I loved as a child, they were much more interesting than the nice ones.
Today my inspirations are graphic novels, comics, literature, art history, tattoos, film noir, illustration, street art, mexican wrestlers, low brow, old sci-fi movies, super heroes, vintage pin-ups, art toys and graphic design.

© Zoé Byland

© Zoé Byland

In recent years your style has changed quite a bit, from what used to be so frequently mislabeled as comics to iconic portraits of humans and animals sporting wrestling masks, tattoos, fishbowl helmets and other accessories – art remixes so to speak. How did this change come about?

I always wanted to improve my painting skills, so I started translating my “comic” style into a traditional painting technique.
I’m very interested in historical paintings, their drama and secrets, the fact that they still move people today. My characters often are masked or have super powers. They are the lead actors in a world between idealism and trash, populated by wrestlers, tattooed movie divas, animals and super heroines. I am interested in combining opposites – old and new, disguise and revelation, timeless forms of representation and attributes like dramaturgy and staging, identity and the dismantling and undermining of viewers’ expectations.
My work is of a narrative nature – I want the “story” to continue in the head of the viewer. I think this style of painting best serves this purpose.

© Zoé Byland

© Zoé Byland

This technique you mentioned is a refined mixture combining painting and airbrushing. Could you describe how this works, or is it your trade secret?

Thank you! The whole secret is acrylic paint and then softening the transitions by airbrushing them at the end…

What projects are you working on at the moment?

I just painted “King of the woods“, a big tattooed deer. I would love to do a few smaller collaborations beside my painting work in the near future and show more work abroad.

© Zoé Byland

© Zoé Byland

Top 5 artists at the moment?

Top 5 songs/records/artists to listen to while working?

  • Audiobooks! All sorts of vintage detective stories work good: Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, Francis Durbridge, also Terry Pratchett.
  • Aesop rock
  • The Kills
  • Nick Cave
  • Josephine Baker

Another Top 5 of your choice!

  • Tapas & mexican boleros
  • Hercule Poirot
  • Trees
  • Papercraft design and art with paper books
  • Art toys
© Zoé Byland

© Zoé Byland

© Zoé Byland

© Zoé Byland