New York CityArtCake
Series: Still Lives and Dioramas
November 27, 2021 – January 30, 2022
Ethan Ryman’s exploration of his idiosyncratic idiom that lies in-between the functions of photography and sculpture is distinctly unique in that he is neither a photographer nor a sculptor. Yet, in his particular and singular pursuit in both practices Ryman appears to be singularly particular. For a good decade, ever since Ryman closed his long chapter as a music producer in 2007, he’s undertaken his new career as a self-taught artist to employ photography as means to examine new spatial possibilities upon which the intersections of carefully composed architectural motifs, including façades, sides, rooftops, cornices, finials, among other features of buildings in varieties of angles can be explored while simultaneously expanding the dynamism of abstract geometry and the subtlety of texture. I should mention Ryman’s concept of objecthood began in mounting his images on aluminum from the outset while displaying them as antiparallel to the walls. Then leading to his last one-person exhibit, The Band: An Installation of Obstructivist Construction and Related Photo-Sculptural Objects at 524 Projects in 2017, Ryman’s attraction to sculpture and photography in their respective domains was fully revealed: five constructed boxes in their assertive rectilinear configurations, for each is placed on a pedestal along with five photographs, mounted on relatively thick wooden frames, which had taken from them. Whatever references one may relate Ryman’s work to among early modernist painting, especially purism or precisionism, both of which preferred formal designs of geometrical plans in respect to urban life and technology as cool, impersonal procreation as seen in the paintings of say Charles Sheeler and Ralston Crawford in particular, one is taken at once by how Ryman has continued to evolve in furthering his experiment with form as a potential synthesis of two and three-dimension and the uses of materials.
In his most recent one-person exhibit, such pictorial clarity has increased with greater focus as the artist himself had articulated his intentions in the four following elements: images, things, frames, and shadows, and how they correspond to one and another. As part of Ryman’s daily ritual, images seem to emerge at first from his attentive perception of urban architecture and its infrastructure, then back in the studio he constructs simple wooden structures, from thin plywood to cigar boxes, only to arrange them as still lives to be photographed. It’s only through vigorous editing scrutiny that whatever gets selected as a final image must embody Ryman’s spatial memory of recreation. Second, things as they exist in actual physical space, not imagined space, are inherently related to his conception of frames and shadows, the last two natural occurrences, subordinating the true presence of each work. That said, the emphasis on how various compositions of rectilinear forms can be mediated or maximized through these four elements has proven to be the artist’s advantages. In other words, these works are not mere demonstrations of Ryman’s declarative “self-imposed constraints.” They’re in fact subtle permutations of his conceptual thinking through concrete objects and abstractions. For example, in Still Life #11B and Still Life #1C, they share, as one notices at first, an off-square format (20 ¼” x 20” in the former, 10 ½” x 12 × 3 ¾” in the latter) and an identical composition. What appears to be three successive boxes, carefully composed perpendicular to the wall behind and the floor below, with slight intervals between them, one is taken by the top horizontal line, juxtaposed by the irregular vertical line, caused by the three boxes being overlapped from one to another. Equally important is the abutted triangular shape on the top right corner of the picture that not only anchors the white negative space behind but holding equal weight of the stacked boxes diagonally below. Lastly, in response to the variations in color and scale, Ryman aptly deploys two different presentations: while the former is hinged to its right from the back, which allows the picture to be adjusted to an ideal angle, the latter is simply sitting on and leaning against a relatively larger plywood shelf, painted with black gesso. Just when one thinks Ryman’s activation of his four “self-imposed constraints” to be passively applied to everything he makes, one quickly recognizes the extraordinary subtlety in how the notion of repetition and difference is being simultaneously generated. Here, repetition seems to be independent of the sameness of any given circumstances or action; difference is likewise capable of having meaning independent of sameness. Again, the interplay between repetition and difference is varied depending on how simple or complex, static or dynamic each work calls forth according to its specific mode of presentation.
This is to say, while the slight angles in Still Life #7, Still Life #1C, Still Life #4, and Still Life #5 may seem to be similar in the first glance, yet in a prolonged viewing proceeding, each is differed by its image, and how each image is amplified by the relationship between scale and the plywood shelf’s proportion, especially in the case of Still Life #4, installed on a pedestal while leaning perfectly perpendicular against its plywood shelf. As for Still Life #8, Still Life #9, Still Life #10, their modes of presentation are rested on the wall, hinged on both left and right from behind respectively, hence prompting their monumentality and abstraction more aggressively than the rest of the works in this exhibit. I came away thinking of Ryman’s four elements in relation to how he endlessly harvests each work’s strength. Through the subtle uses of repetition and difference, Ryman has enabled to deploy quite brilliantly what lies in between all four of his mediums of interests, namely painting, photography, architecture, and sculpture with such invention and gaiety of spirit. All of which not only correspond again to his four elements of ‘self-imposed constraints’ but also function like a quatrain in a variety of forms, be it elegiac or hymnal stanza, memorial stanza, envelope or ballad stanza. Ryman’s conceptual thinking is poetic in nature indeed.