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Profile: Will Ryman

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

In his current exhibit Tuesday Afternoon, now on view at Marlborough Chelsea till January 8, 2007, artist Will Ryman translates commonplace urban scenes into playful but unsettling sculptural gatherings. His portraits of city life emphasize the absurd, abandoning natural proportion in favor of dream-like distortions in which lips and eyes balloon forward, furniture becomes architecture, and limbs stretch in fits of ecstasy or bend into a sedation at the edge of sleep. The exhibit epitomizes Ryman’s work, in which familiar sights become strange, simultaneously attractive and repulsive. His sculptures amplify more of the gestalt perception of the different ways in which images come into being rather than their representational means. All creative materials are left visible—wire mesh, wooden struts, fasteners, plaster globs, cracks and hinges clearly show through the painted surfaces of each piece. As Ryman conceives it, this roughness reveals the human hand’s physical movement, constantly reminding viewers of the artist’s presence as they wander among the outsized figures.

"The Bed," 2007. Papier mache, resin, wire mesh, acrylic. Courtesy of Marlborough Chelsea.

Ryman’s “Sidewalk” dominates the front half of the gallery floor with a crowd of various characters. Standing on a grid of concrete-gray, these archetypal pedestrians gather and scatter at random, some standing in groups, but all of them lost in a heavy-eyed trance. A jogger labors past in the foreground, his left shoe swollen to an alarming size, suggesting both its weight and the energy dispersing from its collision with the pavement. A girl goose-steps past, spine stretched straight and eyes glowing in response either to her iPod’s music or the cruel angle of her jagged platform shoes. Men play cards, looking straight through one another—or out at the viewer. There is no other indication of bad weather, but a man strides by with his umbrella held high, smiling absently with a New York Post announcing “WAR” folded casually in one hand. An elderly couple hails a cab, a homeless man’s mouth gapes wide, dog droppings fall nearby—the scene is familiar to any city resident, but the drowsiness of the figures catches our attention. In some ways, the piece nods to Ryman’s earlier work, presenting the human figure in dense groups that viewers cannot enter. “The Pit”, for example, which was included in P.S.1’s Greater New York exhibit in 2003, comprised dozens of figures gathered on the floor of a exitless, high-walled room, visible only from a high balcony. “Sidewalk,” however, allows more room for individuality within the mass of human forms, and so encourages us to engage with each character as an individual. The characters are uncannily familiar, or “specific”; all of them draw on Ryman’s experience of New York City’s sidewalks. Taken as a whole, the collection represents New York as it was in Ryman’s childhood and as it is now, expressing nostalgia for the city Ryman declares “long gone,” and critiquing the city that has replaced it. But, taken individually, the pieces offer specific comments about nearly every layer of the city’s stratified society.

Ryman’s interest in characters led him to pursue a writing career for twelve years before he discovered sculpture. As a playwright, he focused on brief scenes that unpacked people’s interior lives, often by splitting their internal monologues into multiple, audible voices. But Ryman had difficulty constructing linear narratives, and felt restricted by dramatic writing. “I couldn’t stay with a scene long enough to develop it fully,” he says. “Probably because I wanted to go everywhere at once.” His desire to abandon stories altogether made sculpture an ideal medium. Without any formal training, Ryman learned how to work with materials (mostly with papier-mâché, wood, acrylic paint, wire-mesh, aluminum, and PVC tubes, but also with ready-made objects like sneakers, and, in recent works, epoxy resin) out of necessity and through his own visceral feeling for form. He began tentatively, but soon began producing at a rapid rate, filling both his own loft/studio and the basement of his parents’ home with original works.

Asked whether he begins sculpting with characters in mind or discovers them only after completion, Ryman laughs. “Definitely the latter,” he says emphatically. Working on “Sidewalk,” he did not recognize the figures as residents of his childhood neighborhood until after they were complete. His creative process begins with an amorphous vision and gathers momentum and clarity as he works, until a single or group of figures emerge. Within each project, Ryman moves in as many directions as he wants, creating dozens of simultaneous scenes rather than restricting himself to one.

In Tuesday, Ryman’s “Bed” sets this exploration of crafted characters aside, and turns its attention to their source—himself. A monumental sculpture of a less-than-monumental moment, “Bed” depicts the artist lying belly-down on a twin-size bed, exhausted, his limbs draped shapelessly over the mattress and across the floor. Near his hands, bric-a-brac and a variety of snacks litter the ground, spilling over and piling onto one another. One immediately notices that the beer cans stand as tall as the bed, a box of cigarettes seems larger than the sleeping man’s head, and a forgotten pen almost matches the length of his arm. As usual, Ryman’s proportions are wildly distorted, but the effect is more compelling than that of his previous works; it insists on a psychological response from the viewer. On one hand, the objects appear to have expanded or deflated according to their owner’s degree of affection, which might explain the relatively small size of the lamp and snacks in comparison to the monstrously large cigarettes and beers. On the other hand, the objects on the floor appear to have been inflated to make viewers feel small as they approach, distant from the deflated human figure above them.

“At first, I wanted the piece to be even larger, so that you could only see the arms coming down from the bed,” Ryman says. “I wanted people to see the man in bed as if they were children.” Like “Sidewalk,” “Bed” combines elements of Ryman’s childhood and current perspectives. It’s as though the relationship between the former and latter is inseparable, making it a fertile ground for experimentation. Extraneous, imaginary characters fall away, and the budding artist gazes directly at the artist fully-formed.

But, though Tuesday seems to represent a culmination in Ryman’s development, he is anxious to move on to something new. “That show is not really part of me anymore,” he says. “I just want to experience new beginnings, ones that will take me to unfamiliar places where I have to rebuild myself from scratch.” Ryman acknowledges similarities between his attenuated figures and those of Giacometti, and his current work openly references Claes Oldenburg and Jasper Johns (Ballantine beer cans show up in “Bed,” and a burger rests in “Sidewalk”’s trash bin). “Bed” also has a strong kinship to Guston’s 1973 epic painting “Painting, Smoking, Eating,” in which the artist portrayed the lethargic and melancholic aspects of the painter’s saturnian but protean nature. But the delicate interplay between the comic and tragic is distinctly Ryman’s own. And though his materials have served him well until now, he wants to move on to something more durable, eventually creating sculptures strong enough for long-term, outdoor installation. “I want them to survive,” he says, “and to reach more people.”


Maxwell Heller


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 07-JAN 08

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