The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2023

All Issues
JUNE 2023 Issue

Ethan Ryman: New Work

Installation view, <em>Ethan Ryman: New Work</em>, Cathouse Proper, New York, 2023. Courtesy Cathouse Proper.
Installation view, Ethan Ryman: New Work, Cathouse Proper, New York, 2023. Courtesy Cathouse Proper.

Cathouse Proper
Ethan Ryman: New Work
May 6 – June 11, 2023

One of the most effective ways an artist can model their own history is by fabricating it themselves. This can be done to then depart from such a fabrication, encapsulating both making and knowing in a unified creative gesture. In taking such creative control, the artist enacts the potential to obviate the prophylactic effect of determinist historical models on their creative projections, or the enervating influence of “a permanent awareness of the operating rule of (the artwork) in relation to discourse.”1 And, most appropriately for Ethan Ryman’s exhibition, the artist can translate what Bernard Berenson described as a “tactile consciousness” into a history of fabrication itself.

Ryman has developed a process in which he creates literal, sculptural models which he then photographs as expressions of his figurative imagination, practically circumventing any need to “model” his work to pre-established modes of critical re-presentation. He sets up a tense, conceptual tautology with such an approach that force multiplies the dynamic vertices in his tightly cropped and color enhanced compositions. His means of production, as such, accords with his creative vision, which forefront a visual modeling of felt presence. And by combining sculpture and photography as he does, Ryman eloquently manages to reinvent abstraction in a way that takes into consideration the contradictory contemporary condition of simultaneous presence and distance, somewhat like the artists Thomas Demand or James Casebere, yet without those artists’ tendencies toward bloodless austerity and its attendant critique of postmodern simulacra. In contrast, Ryman’s graphically bracing, and brightly accented photographic excerpts from what he terms his “Perfect Flat Constructions” surge with vectoral velocity. Each is mounted on a thin aluminum brace which is then installed either parallel to the wall, slightly askew, or even sometimes supported by a shelflike structure, almost as if the vestigial three dimensionality of the “originals” refuse to be photomechanically repressed.

Untitled Still Life with Gray Frame (2023) depicts an angular black, white, gray, and red “corner” that visually reinforces the square of its supporting field while propped vicariously on a shallow gray “shelf.” The indeterminacy of such a physical gesture combined with the image’s unplaceable photographic source throws any strict formalist argument on its angular redundancies into radical question. Another composition with the exact same title (yet different image and shelf alignment) is also included in the show, extending such critical indeterminacy. Considering this, the artist seems to be saying, “This is really not that, but could be something else altogether.” Something neither perfect nor flat, or maybe something lurking in the weeds between.

Ethan Ryman, <em> Untitled Still Life With Gray Frame</em>, 2023. Courtesy Cathouse Proper
Ethan Ryman, Untitled Still Life With Gray Frame, 2023. Courtesy Cathouse Proper

It's interesting to note that Ryman had a large hand in designing the quirky space of Cathouse Proper, originally conceived as a temporary display locale for his father Robert Ryman’s work. In lieu of that original purpose, for the past six years Cathouse Proper evolved into a de facto gallery space, hosting a series of innovative shows coordinated by its creatively resourceful director David Dixon. The odd, double-story design of the gallery’s main, L-shaped space seems to have influenced Dixon’s unconventional curation of a wide variety of artists, each of whom has, in turn, risen to the quirky architectural occasion. The history of the space, its literal development and subsequent figurative responses, has an unavoidable bearing on Ryman’s tactical occupation in this show, which will be the gallery’s final exhibition. The artist has taken the opportunity to install the nine discrete artworks that constitute the show in uneven intervals throughout the gallery, achieving the overall effect of a summary statement of asymmetrical artistic intent.

The gallery space itself functions as a framing device for a taut formal rhythm in the work that invites a phenomenal, bodily response. For instance, Still Life 105-Portal (2023) leans on one edge against the back wall of the gallery nearby an oddly proportioned window. The architectural asymmetry reinforces the casual balance of this piece, which consists of an assimilative color equilibrium in orange, brown, yellow, and white. The viewer is not given the option to revel solely in the work’s inherent formal clarity without considering its eccentric installation and contingent posture within its surroundings. This combined effect pushes one into the realm of the occasional present, a place where Ryman plays most effectively with our contemporary consciousness, schematically addled as it is by commercially mechanized, of-the-moment abstractions. Relatedly, the artist has maintained a parallel presence on Instagram using the handle @titan_of_leisure as a virtual locale. There he engages in a project of photographic excerpts of New York’s often vertiginous perspectives, an architectural record that echoes his more sculpturally instantiated artworks. If the onset of photography represented the “skinning of the world” (to paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes) then Ryman seems intent, with his aluminum-mounted “still lifes,” upon re-embodying the world toward a less eviscerated fate.

There are instances in the show in which the artist throws additional curveballs at a strictly formal reading of his work. Along with the intensely detailed photographic quotations of his very painterly, polychromed models (taken by the esteemed photographer Dario Lasagni with a state of the art, high definition, Hasselblad H6 100c) Ryman includes one of these, Untitled Still Life with Inset Frame (2023) embedded in the gallery wall, further adumbrating photography’s mechanically distanced optics. Another work, Beacon 1 (2023), is presented in skewed alignment in a projecting lightbox that approximates the size of the embedded work. Between the two the artist cannily literalizes the push and pull of the two-dimensional encounter, as it is perceived in one’s “tactile consciousness” into a heightened experience of physical presence. In addition, playing with the viewer’s expectation of such sophisticated turns, Ryman includes Still Life 102-Stylus (2023), the largest work in the exhibition. Occupying its own wall, this work is the only one installed truly parallel to the surface and its particular photo quotation crops the image into an approximate golden section, thereby representing a universal form ideal. It acts, therefore, as a foil to the predominant feeling of eccentric abstraction in the rest of the show. Ryman thoughtfully implies, with the inclusion of this work, that he’s no purist when it comes to propounding the alternate take.


  1. Yve- Alain Bois, “Painting as Model,” October Magazine, 1986, 125.


Tom McGlynn

Tom McGlynn is an artist and writer based in the NYC area.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2023

All Issues