Photo Essays

Thousands of Gemstones and Beads Went Into These Moldy Fruit Sculptures

Like classical still life paintings, these viral works from artist Kathleen Ryan remind us of the transience of life.

“Bad Satsuma” (2018), by Kathleen Ryan. (all images courtesy Josh Lilley Gallery, except where indicated)

Artist Kathleen Ryan became the talk of the town last week, when images of her oversized sculptures of fruit went viral. Virality feels like an appropriate outcome for these works, given that they’re meticulously beaded in thousands of gems and plastic beads to evoke states of florid decay.

“Bad Lemon (Sour Sparkle)” (2018)
“Soft Spot” (2019)

Drawing from real rotting fruit much in the manner of a Dutch still life painter, Ryan translates nature’s handiwork into intricate textural works that strongly balance attraction and repulsion. The gemstones and faceted plastic beads she uses to create the variegated topographies of her produce sculptures are recognizably precious materials. In microcosm they create endlessly fascinating landscapes pinioned on the roughly spherical surfaces of her sculptures by thousands of straight pins. But zooming out from them to a macro view reveals the form as a monument to the inevitable decline of vigor and health. Ryan frames these works as a critique of excess.

Detail view of a rotten orange work by Kathleen Ryan.
“Black Lemon, 2019” (2019)

“The sculptures are beautiful and pleasurable, but there’s an ugliness and unease that comes with them,” Ryan said, in a recent profile for the New York Times. In this way, they serve as the same kind of momento mori that haunt classical still life paintings, reminding the viewer always of the transience of life. Truly, these ghoulish fruits instigate a deeply resonant tension between wonder and horror, a desire to draw closer and further in the viewing that find a faint echo in the surface-to-wide-angle viewing experience of an Impressionist painting.

“Parasol” (2017), detail view. Image courtesy the artist and François Ghebaly, Los Angeles
“Diana” (2017), installation view. Image courtesy the Artist, Arsenal Contemporary, and François Ghebaly, Los Angeles

Ryan’s interest in materiality and repetition is evident in other aspects of her oeuvre; she likewise seems to enjoy topping metal armatures with hand-molded ceramic figures that roughly resemble flocks of perching parrots, as with her 2017 work, “Parasol,” or the austere and suggestive “Diana” (2017), that presents a delicately feathered chandelier-like blossom of rose quartz emerging from a giant seed pod rendered in rusted cast iron and hanging from an industrial hook and chain. Though her moldy fruit works are turning heads at the moment, they are clearly not the only part of Ryan’s multifold art practice that manages an arresting balance of opposites.

“Pixie Bones” (2018)
“Emerald City” (2019)

Ryan is represented by London-based gallery Josh Lilley, as well as François Ghebaly in Los Angeles, where her fruit was the eponymous inspiration for the recent group show Bad Peach.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated François Ghebaly was based in Paris. We regret the error.

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