Andrew Edlin Gallery
With a repertoire of unlikely materials and self-taught techniques, Michael Ryan paints landscapes saturated in a fog of anxiety, full of bleary and grimacing visions. Alone, the unforgiving plains hollowed of natural elegance would bespeak a final desolation, but the weird figures and gruesome animals found there inflect the purely ominous with existential conflict.
Enigmatic tokens from the troubled reaches of the artist’s mind, these pictures owe their mystery not so much to imagery alone but more to the way each picture seems so solitary and detached. Are they haunted by the same looming specter, which takes on numerous forms? Little if anything can be known about the nature of these creatures. They are grafted to the landscape, wayward in an alien place. There are what appear like animals, such as a wolf and a swan, what might be lions, perhaps a horse; additionally, there are figures that include a fragile self-portrait along with more obscure, elemental beings.
The brushy articulations that overlay ruddy washes suggest a scarce, near-barren world. “Intimacy” depicts a scorched savanna; in “Little Red Riding Hood,” a lifeless, dark forest. Elsewhere are the foothills of grayed, stormy mountains. The paintings’ wrinkles and rivulets make them resemble dingy relics of some primordial age. Equipped to expertly reproduce marbled surfaces, Ryan can mold his materials with a nuance that belies his association with other more naïve, self-taught artists.
Two paintings from the early 1990s are shown among the recent work, namely “North Pole” and “Three-Horned Goat.” While the first seems to be a virtuoso technical experiment and the second a menacing confrontation, both can be seen as the raw materials that catalyze the new work—the reconciliation between fits of agitated insight and the careful arbitration of materials and technique.
Although the images bear witness to a soul longing for solace, purging the strange and unknown from within it, there’s a disconnect in absorbing them. Like the scene portrayed in “Zoo,” we the audience come to see something that is wild, perhaps even dangerous, but also safely restrained from harming us. The artist has illustrated the visions he endures but has the courage to face them alone. He may reveal them to us, but we only sense their tragic melancholy—little escapes from their capacity to torment.