As an exhibition, ‘Polyptych Subsets’ questions whether an artist can allow an artwork to ‘cause’ itself. John Ryan outlines his own practice in terms of contingency, what might or might not happen, experimenting with “what paint can do itself when exposed to the elements, air and gravity”. Broadly speaking, the moment an artwork is made can been seen an intersection between disjunctive and conjunctive potentialities. Artists use the world as material, they make objects into things: things that could push apart, and things that could come together, things that work, and things that do not work (together). But Ryan’s art practice undercuts systems of art making which insist that events can be predicted, or proceed from some sort of necessity. He transforms our understanding of artwork by allowing the paint itself to think autonomously of the subject (the artist), who also thinks. Ryan’s experiments in and with paint can be understood as an experimentation with points of control and points of exposure; exposure meaning an opening where a unknown aspect can come in, and control meaning the artist’s decision to use paint, to use frame or floor or plastic bag, and the decision to allow gravity, time, and other external forces to decide the outcome of the work. The frame no longer determines the text or context.
In the case of Painting 2, these points of control and decision mark the historical and referential dimensions of the work. They reuse terms already known to us: the frame, the gallery, and even oil paint as a medium in itself. But these terms are coloured by a seepage, an oozing, a sliding down. Through a lack of intention that has been ‘let in’ these works grant access to potential that could not have been forethought or foreseen by the artist in their entirety. It is as much about what paint itself can do as what Ryan can do with paint.
Ryan’s exhibits take up Slavoj Žižek’s challenge, “to discover trash as an aesthetic object”.1 In Hanging Bag and Pile he succeeds in objectifying paint, forcing painting and sculpture, artwork and material together in a new synthetic excrescence. As we enter the gallery space, we feel that what’s before us is the posterior residue of an unknown activity that appears to have no sense behind it. However, what Ryan’s practice embraces is not senselessness, but rather the demand of sense unto itself. These works create new economies of meaning and value out of what seems redundant – paint, card, plastic bags, insulating tape, shampoo – forcing the medium (oil paint) to be recognised as an object in its own right, rather than simply the means to create an object: paint as paint not paint on a painting. Objects that were originally functional, and deemed useless, are given meaning, as Ryan re-creates and re-enchants them. For Žižek, uncovering the aesthetic dimension of trash is “the true love of the world”.2
Theoretically speaking, Ryan’s work – his haptic, sentient, and viscous art – challenges the idea that paint is passive matter. His object-oriented art articulates a jumpy materiality where paint has efficacy, can do things, and has sufficient capacity to produce effects, bring about events, interrupt, and become an obstacle (it would be quite easy to walk into Ryan’s floor painting for example). This method lends ‘Polyptych Subsets’ an open structure where indeterminacy and the incompleteness of form are celebrated. Ryan revels in viscosity; he is intrigued by mess, disarray, that which leaks, sticks out, or is sticky. This exhibition, like Nikolas Gambaroff’s ‘Male Fantasies’, which ran recently at the White Cube Gallery, is peopled by a variety of objects entering into new relationships, which turn the gallery space itself into a landscape of vibrant materialities. The Joinery became a space where human and nonhuman actants were intermeshed, a place where contingencies played out (or didn’t).
What sets Ryan’s style apart is, perhaps peculiarly, what he does unintentionally. Paradoxically, allowing space for contingency within the work is what gives this exhibition, and Ryan’s practice as a whole, its edge. The stuff of his practice is essentially decomposable, biodegradable, fated to pass away, to lose its identity as thing and to become again no(n)-thing. Looking at this exhibition, another question takes shape: What will remain of it? What will float on the surface? What will survive of ‘Polyptych Subsets’? This, finally, is what’s left to chance, and we are left with the giddy feeling that some of Ryan’s work might never dry.
is an artist and writer working in Dublin.
teaches Continental Philosophy at Independent College, Dublin.
1. Slavoj Žižek,‘Ecology’, Astra Taylor (ed) Examined Life: Excursions with Contemporary Thinkers, New york, The New Press, 2009, 163 2. Žižek,‘Ecology’ , 2009, 166