On ViewChart Gallery
Will Ryman: New York, New York
September 9–October 22, 2022
Will Ryman’s exhibition New York, New York at Chart Gallery celebrates the city’s absurdity, vitality, grittiness, and beauty with ten sculptural works conceived as vignettes of street life. At the entrance to the gallery the floor sculpture Popcorn (2022), which features Ryman’s signature pigeons, constructed of nails, steel and resin, delighting in an overturned bucket of buttery white kernels, sets a spirited mood. The birds are surrounded by detritus—cigarette butts, a discarded soda can, a ripe strawberry, which Ryman renders with a charming touch. His elevation of the pedestrian aspects of urban experience has a nostalgic quality, evoking both Ryman’s urban scenes series of 2007, as well as the legacy of Claes Oldenburg and Red Grooms.
The vintage aesthetic is evident in Utopia (2022), an old-fashioned metal trash bin piled high with soda cans, fruit cores, a metro-card, a broken umbrella and Styrofoam takeout containers. The tower of trash creates a totem pole emblazoned with brand names such as Coca-Cola, Dr. Pepper, Tab, Yahoo. Ryman adds additional smaller labels to the garbage pile with words cut from newspaper headlines including “Goodbye”, “Vicious,” and “Utopia.” Although brightly colored and whimsically constructed, the sculpture draws attention to the intractable effects of our disposable consumer culture, which has defined the late twentieth and twenty-first century.
The tension between the organic and manufactured also appears in The Hip Hop Streets (2022), in which natural forces triumph as red roses, a nod to Ryman’s 2011 midtown installation The Roses. In contrast to the public sculpture, which burst forth from the planters along Park Avenue, in this small-scale version the flowers blossom in a muddy sidewalk planter strewn with pieces of trash. They evoke resilience and rejuvenation, both environmentally and for post-covid New York City.
Ryman’s spindly, egg-headed clay figures are spunky characters who beckon the visitor from the front to the back of the gallery. In NYPD (2022), a woman sits with legs casually crossed, her feet clad in platform shoes dangling from a pillar stamped with the police logo. Locks and chains dangle and adorn as earrings and a necklace, becoming items of self-expression rather than incarceration. Humorous, absurd details enliven the sculpture Give Us a Shot (2022), a multi-figure park-bench scene in which one protagonist enjoys a pigeon-feather sandwich as a pigeon swoops overhead. In Soothsayer (2022) a woman relaxes barefoot on a patchwork blanket. Her character is defined by eccentricities, from her white hat topped with a stuffed pheasant to her belt fastened with a clock for buckle. The figures are both familiar, their poses and actions drawn from the daily scenes of the city, and infused with elements of Gothic fantasy.
On the lower level of the gallery are two more works: Cinderella Story (2022), and The Exterminator (2008-2022). This grouping juxtaposes a pair of subway riders with a clan of businessmen who run from an exterminator wearing a hazmat suit. Cinderella Story features a woman in fringe dress, constructed of nails, eating ramen. At her feet is an apple core and beside her a man in a brightly colored sweatshirt tiredly rests his head in his hand. We are left to imagine where she has been and what she is returning to. Where is she in her process of transformation? Whereas Cinderella Story possesses a ruminative character, there is unsettling urgency in The Exterminator where miniature businessmen flee poison gas, arms flailing. Who is the exterminator? The sense of panic the work evokes alludes both to the pandemic and the continuous boom and bust cycles of contemporary finance.
While Ryman embraces some of the darker elements of daily life, these challenges are subsumed as part of the tough and wonderful New York experience. A New York native, he has worked in a studio on the Bowery for twenty years and witnessed the city’s evolution. He first began making handmade papier mâché figurative sculptures in 2003, while working as a playwright, to create a “a play without actors.” His return to the foundations of his practice in New York, New York is an inspired homecoming.