There is something wonderfully democratic about Cordy Ryman’s approach to art. His basic material is a length of two-by-four, augmented by wood scraps, eyebolts, and paint (acrylic, enamel, encaustic, shellac, and fluorescent) — stuff you can buy in a hardware store, none of it expensive. He doesn’t send his work out to be fabricated, nor does he try to impress you with how much labor (usually done by others) goes into the work. He has not bought into the Age of Excess.
In his current exhibition, Cordy Ryman, at Zürcher (September 15 – October 30, 2016), the viewer walks into what initially appears to be an installation — it isn’t — made up of two wall pieces, each taking over one of the gallery’s two long, facing walls. “Melville” (2016), which is on the left as you enter, is made of sixty-one lengths of two-by-fours measuring eight feet that are painted white on three sides and fluorescent red on the other. Leaning against the wall, the painted white boards form an undulating fence-like structure, which casts a pink glow behind them.
Directly opposite “Melville” is “Whalebones” (2016), which consists of 24 separate pieces, or white bones. For each bone, Ryman has used hinges to join together various lengths of two-by-fours, which he has painted white on the front and both sides, leaving the knotholes bare. While this may have been a necessity — knotholes are extremely difficult to cover with paint — Ryman’s decision to leave them bare, circled by white paint, adds an interesting wrinkle to the work.
Ryman has painted the hidden side of the board fluorescent red, which projects a pink glow onto the wall. The hinged lengths of wood start on the dark, unpolished, plank floor, travel up the wall, hug it, and tilt forward at the top, extending into the room. In some spots, the bones hang over the overhead pipes of this funky Bleecker Street version of a white cube. The pink, ghostly glow evokes both the whale’s flesh and the buckets that fill with blood when the whale is flensed, while the unpainted knotholes suggest something that has been sawed or scraped away. What we see in these “bones” is the aftermath of violence, a partially cleansed object that casts a glow (or stain) on the wall.
Together, these pieces refer to Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, a book that moved D.H. Lawrence to write that Melville was “a futurist long before futurism found paint,” and inspired two of the more megalomaniacal contemporary artists, Frank Stella and Matthew Barney, to make some of their most opulent, overblown works. Stella and Barney went for spectacle and pageantry, while Ryman went for — excuse the joke — bones. For many reasons, Ryman’s directness is welcome, not the least being that he reminds us that sometimes more is just more.
While it wasn’t Ryman’s intention to criticize this age of excess and display – from selfies to environmentally disastrous yachts and private jets — I was charmed by his ability to infuse humble materials with playfulness and humor. There’s no charm in Stella and Barney, who are too busy trying to impress upon you how great they are that their work finally devolves into one long shrill cry cloaked in a variety of elaborate costumes.
The two artists I would connect Ryman to, are Al Taylor and Andre Cadere, who challenged the boundaries between sculpture and painting through the use of simple materials: Plexiglas and paint and painted round wooden balls. They make Stella and Barney and others look like show-offs.
Hanging on the left wall towards the back of the gallery’s main room, “84” (2016) is a good example of how much Ryman can do with a standard cut of wood. As the piece’s title underscores, the work is made of eighty-four cut sections of wood arranged in a grid and mounted on the wall. The sides have been painted white, while the exposed partial rings of the bare wood become an uneven, gridded surface. The cells of the grid each contain incomplete, concentric whorls made up of selected rings, some which the artist has filled with white paint and varying shades of blue. It’s like looking into a kaleidoscope, where fragments hold the promise that a complete image will emerge once they are aligned correctly, but never actually deliver, or grappling with a variation of a Rubik’s cube that can never be solved.
In his best works Ryman makes something visually arresting out of ordinary materials and paint. Often — though not always — his works evoke paintings, surfaces on which a liquid medium has been applied. In the gallery’s small side room, the artist has placed an array of works in different sizes and configurations, including a number mounted in the corners. Some of the pieces of wood have holes drilled into them, while others seem to have been gathered from a pile of scraps. Ryman takes his cues from the topography of the abutted pieces of wood, relying on the grain as a guide to where to apply the paint. I was reminded of game pieces (dominoes, for example) and toys made by someone relegated to wood scraps and leftover paint. The sides of the pieces are as important as the front. You feel as if it is your duty to peer into some, like a curious mouse. The point to these works is that there is nothing to discover other than the pleasure of looking.
In his best works humor and inventiveness are inseparable, and the joy of them is equally palpable.
Cordy Ryman continues at Zürcher Gallery (33 Bleecker Street, Bowery, Manhattan) through October 30.
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