HAMTRAMCK, Mich. — “As a child, I had a devout interest in my grandfather’s handmade fly traps that adorned his backyard garden, dangling from tree branches and fence posts,” reads the statement accompanying Ryan Standfest’s solo exhibition of prints at Hatch Art, Random Negotiations Toward an Unreasonable Happiness.

I was mesmerized by these simple contraptions as their glass jars, without fail, would become overpopulated with a teeming mess of flies … After I failed to comprehend how the flies could not exit the trap, he explained: a small area of the lid was raised slightly to allow the flies to enter. But within the underside of the lid, both the raised area and the rim of the opening, was painted brown, and thus the compound eyes of the fly could not clearly perceive a way out, resulting in its own entrapment … I often reflect on the absurdity of the situation — a collision between intent and circumstance, a mechanism constructed to rely upon misperception, a little death machine put to work in the clear light of day.

This statement eloquently draws together a number of aesthetic and symbolic components of Standfest’s work: contraptions, instructions, maudlin memories, grotesque outcomes, and dark, dark humor. “Post-Truth Feed (for Daniil Kharms)” features a series of neat, rubber-stamped jars — an approximation of his grandfather’s death traps — annotated with handwritten snippets of a 1930 poem by Soviet-era absurdist writer Daniil Kharms, “Notnow,” which feels all too relevant in our current post-truth climate:

This is This.

That is That.

This is not That.

This is not This.

What’s left is either this, or not this.

It’s all either that, or not that.

What’s not that and not this, that is not this and not that.

What is this and also that, that is itself Itself.

And so forth. At the bottom of the print is a collection of plastic flies, which Standfest describes as “a neatly contained atrocity, a twitching orgy of wings and hairy legs, as the flies became tangled with one another until they settled into a thick, wet cake of black.”

Ryan Standfest, “Frontispiece to A Night of Series Drinking (for René Daumal)” (2016) (detail), letterpress, edition of 50.

As with all of Standfest’s works, there is a kind of sly humor beneath the grotesque. Much as they approximate his memories of this “Grand Guignol theatre,” the material also directly evokes the wares sold in anachronistic mail-order gag catalogues — another rich mine for inspiration. The imagery is grossly disturbing, stiffly formal, and also funny — gags in more than one sense of the word. Standfest collects old science textbooks, children’s dictionaries, and in general ingests a steady diet of printed ephemera that present information clearly and authoritatively.

Ryan Standfest, “Formulations Toward Achieving an Idyll, No. 2” (2015–16) (detail), screenprint, edition of 50

“The graphic line and the simplification of a constructed idea by deconstructing it into diagrammatic a language (think IKEA instructions), is meant to clarify,” he said in an email interview with Hyperallergic. “I like turning that on its head and creating a state of ‘confused clarity,’ a tentative logic, incomplete circuits.”

Sew a mouse to a hotdog, hook this combo up to a heating element at night, and keep it on the bedside table, says one panel in a trilogy of comic strip-like narratives, “Formulations Toward Achieving Idyll Nos. 1-3.” The text is accompanied by an arrangement of drawn objects with washes of primary colors: an Eames chair, a modernist factory building, a ladder, some geometric shapes. Drill a deep hole into an ample stump. Fill with ash, spittle, blood and a crayon drawing of your father smoking a pipe, suggests another panel.

Ryan Standfest, “Artificial Kingdom No. 2” (2016) (detail), relief with rubberstamping, colored pencil, gouache, edition of nine

Standfest’s diagrams are sometimes fraught with Dadaist logic, presented as standalone tableaus of abstracted and often archaic forms: a hat stand, perhaps, missing its head; three flattened whoopee cushions, pierced by a line and floating like a series of squashed speech bubbles. The imagery is rendered via relief printing as a “solid, insistent, graphic black line.” This is then either printed onto a flat, previously printed solid color, or printed alone with the addition of hand-painted and rubber-stamped elements. They are instructions for unstructured outcomes, answers to questions no one has asked. “The stunting of figures, the missing limbs, is more psychological than physical for me,” said Standfest, “as partial or fragmented figuration indicates a body but not a body, a thing that is no-thing, present but not present.”

The intense effort and thought Standfest invests in the work amplifies its funny and spontaneous aspects — the odd instructions, the occasional hand-drawn elements — breaking up work that might otherwise feel stiflingly formal with subtle winks to the viewer. There’s a sense of incredible deliberation that hangs in the air around the pieces, and even as they are funny, they take being funny kind of seriously.

Ryan Standfest, “The Archeology of Knowledge, 4” (2016) (detail), relief, rubberstampiong, watercolor, edition of nine

Ryan Standfest, “The Transcendentalist’s Carriage House Nos. 1–6,” installation view

Standfest’s work also hints at the crushing misery of intellect and hyper-self-consciousness, especially as self-awareness, to say nothing of truth and its pursuit through formal study, continues to lose its foothold. There’s a kind of melancholy and world-weariness in the repetition of his medium, the meticulous etching into woodblock, the exquisite relief of relief. The heavy lines punctuated by fields of dense, basic colors touch on childhood — gag catalogues, fake flies, an assortment of shapes, all divorced from meaning — but the execution is very sharp, very precise. We accept the work’s ambiguities just as our childhood memories often lack an underlying logic or narrative, pulling only some things into vivid focus. Standfest, now in his early 40s, is rarely to be seen without throwback fashion accessories: a porkpie hat, a button-down jacket, horn-rimmed glasses. It’s difficult to decide whether he is an old soul in a young body, or a child at heart, forced to come to terms with the devastating transition to maturity. 

Ryan Standfest’s Random Negotiations Toward an Unreasonable Happiness continues at Hatch Art (3456 Evaline Street
Hamtramck, Mich.) through January 28.

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit — including at the Detroit Institute of Arts....