Patricia Ainslie: Bryan Ryley - Upsetting the Clan
Bryan Ryley has a mastery of the various techniques of painting. As an abstract artist, he explores the formal and expressive aspects of painting and the issue of pictorial space. His is an exploration beyond the obvious simple mimicking of the scene in front of him. Abstract art moved away from the traditional representation of illusionistic space in which the frame is a window through which to view the world. Bryan chooses to work on the two-dimensional picture plane itself, with colour and form articulating the dynamic push and pull of space.
Bryan began painting at the age of eight and by the time he entered university had developed a consummate technical skill. He studied at the University of Victoria and then did graduate work at the Pratt Institute in New York. He spent time around the Paula Cooper Gallery, which was one of the first to open in Soho. There he met artists, now renowned, including Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Robert Smithson and Jackie Windsor, who were all doing work based on systemic thinking. They used a process-orientated approach, and in work that did not need to reference anything outside of itself. He also made connection with the composer/musician John Cage, and dancers Merce Cunningham and the Tricia Brown Dance Company, who were all working with systemic ideas. Systemic work involved a variety of tactics, including divesting work of structure and permanence in favour of the random and temporary, or using the logic of a predefined system and a set of predetermined procedures.
For Bryan, this approach provided an organizing principle through which to work and a way to subvert his easy facility with technique, to rid himself of control, and to extend his exploration of this facility. His use of systems and procedures to guide the work takes a disciplined, formal, intellectual approach, but his actual application of paint is intuitive and spontaneous. He works in series, with an element in one, triggering a new exploration in the next. As soon as the paintings become easy, Bryan ends the series and moves on to a less comfortable challenge and a new investigation.
In addition to abstract works, Bryan has always made representational paintings; portraits of his children and the landscape around where he lives in the Okanagan. These function as exercises that inform his eye and hone his sensibility. He calls it "recess," where he tests his visual acuity, learns how to mix pigments, deals with atmosphere and the location of space and place.
In Bryan's current series of paintings, Upsetting the Clan, he uses a grid structure and a specific painting system. The title of the series refers to the checked format of Scottish tartans, except that Bryan's grid is developed through his process and upsets the established tartan grid system.
Bryan draws a basic grid on a large wooden board. He throws small squares of cardboard randomly onto it and then fixes them down to line up with the grid structure. The base is different for each painting in this series. Over this he attaches his canvas. Paint is poured onto one end of the canvas, randomly right or left, and then pulled across the surface with a large squeegee using varying pressure. As he pauses, the paint pools and forms a vertical stripe, and as this process is repeated across the surface of the canvas, more vertical stripes are created. In addition, the squeegee picks up the impression of the random cardboard shapes underneath the canvas, the paint grabs or skids or is scraped more thinly depending on the pressure he applies. This creates not only vertical stripes but also horizontal striations; thus creating an informal grid. This process is repeated with up to 12 layers of paint, creating a rich layered surface of irregular stripes.
Circus Train, 2007, employs eight such layers, with white as the final colour. Here, Bryan has also used a smaller squeegee in the central area, which creates horizontal lines as well as vertical ones. Building up layer upon layer of colour with subsequent pulls across the surface lets colour from beneath show through the final upper colour, providing a great sense of depth. At the end of the process, the canvas is removed from the baseboard and positioned onto a stretcher frame in the usual way.
Despite the seemingly random nature of his process, it involves both chance and selection. The artist directs the development of the image through the pressure he applies, his use of different-sized squeegees, and selection of colour. Though a structured process and procedure is set in place, the act of making the work is highly intuitive, relying on Bryan's more than 30 years of art-making experience and understanding of space, colour and form. It is his ongoing investigation. His initial colour is randomly chosen, but subsequent selections reflect his sophisticated colour sensibility. Colour creates light, space and depth. Bryan loves the versatility of paint and the way colour can instantly change the perceptual field and depth of a work and manipulate space.
The paintings are given titles after Bryan has completed them, triggered by the work itself, thus making clear there is no initial subject. The ultimate subject of painting is paint, as it has always been for artists, and the manipulation of colour on the surface of the canvas. This is reflective of a fully abstract approach to making art. He pays homage to Barnett Newman, the great American abstract artist, who urged artists to go beyond the known and visible world into the unknown; to set down the ordered truth that is the expression of their attitude to the mystery of life and death.
The resultant works are vibrantly orchestrated harmonies of light and luscious colour, and surprisingly "painterly." The alternating layers of colour articulate back and forth, with a lateral compression, creating spatial depth and a dynamic rhythm across the picture plane. These are lyrical and joyful paintings. For the viewer, these works can have a multiplicity of meanings, and reflect what we know and what we believe. Meaning is in the eye of the beholder.
Bryan Ryley teaches fine arts at
the University of British Columbia Okanagan.