Whitehot Magazine

"It's Complicated" for the Poor Man's Sculptor

Installation view, courtesy of Laura DeSantis-Olsson

Ryan Roa - It's Complicated
October 16-December 18, 2017
Walsh Gallery at Seton Hall University
400 S. Orange Avenue, South Orange, NJ 07079


Ryan Roa is a mid-career sculptor who recently moved to Miami from the New York area. In this show, organized by Walsh Gallery curator Jeanne Brasile, the artist is presenting work made while taking part in CentralTrak’s residency program a year ago at the University of Texas, Dallas. It's Complicated marks the first time the pieces are being shown in their entirety.

Roa is a poor man’s sculptor; he prefers poor art materials, working with drywall, Plexiglas, and steel mesh. Indeed, the show in the gallery first feels very much like a construction site still in progress. But upon looking closer, viewers can see that what seems to have been an artistic afterthought by a carpenter is actually a group of sculptures that have been meticulously constructed. Indeed, even the spacing of the art’s metal screws is deliberate, intended to bring about a subtle pattern while holding sculptural components together. These works do seem sometimes like they have been lifted untouched from a shelf at Home Depot, but that assessment is missing the point. Roa is actually pushing the minimal impulse further, toward an erasure of the gap between life and art. He rejects the classical simplicity of Minimalism for the atmosphere of a woodworker’s shop. In doing so, he hopes to break down boundaries between artistic work and the constructions of everyday life.

Ryan Roa, Drywall Piece #05, drywall, 2 x 4 studs and drywall screws, 86” x 117” x 4’, 2017, courtesy of Laura DeSantis-Olsson

This step could have been a dangerous one for Roa, who in fact has worked as a carpenter, and who has always favored an art that stays close to everyday efforts and raw materials. Although it could be argued that the point he is making is social, in the sense that he is determined to break down the barriers between creating and living, it is likely that his point is in the long run aesthetic—why not see the beauty in material constituents that are not usually regarded as inherently attractive? In America in the last two generations, there has been a concerted attempt to do away with the difference between thinking of art as an exalted calling and believing that work is something that merely has to be done. Our determination to democratize culture does have its merits, even if the artist risks dumbing down his content in an attempt to reach a wider audience. But the danger of such thinking is its complete acceptance of anything as art—so long as we assert it is art. This issue has been topical ever since Duchamp’s Fountain, presented to the public in 1917, now a century since its exhibition as art. The comparison, though, isn’t truly accurate; Roa is intent on an architectural sculpture made of construction materials. By allowing these elements to remain as they are, or only minimally changing them, he asserts a truth: the drywall will remain drywall even as it suggests the simple planes of minimalism in the artwork.

Installation view, courtesy of Laura DeSantis-Olsson

Roa’s idea is not so very new: the same thing happened with paint in abstract expressionism. Paint was seen as paint, and was not to be subordinated to something other than it was—art incorporating figuration or perspective. But, even so, this decision did not result in a rejection of beauty in abstraction. Roa’s art works similarly. In Drywall Piece 05 (2017), two identical, wing-like extensions of drywall rise and float at angles. Separated only by a small space, the wings are also fulsomely volumetric, being composed of planes joined together at different angles. Supported by small verticals that nearly meet, and by the wall against which the wings rest, the sculpture variously feels like an extinct flying reptile, an innovative but unrecognizable construction for a contemporary home, and, most important, an abstract sculpture. The drywall planes are differently colored—some are brown; some, white. But these colors are inherently part of the materials; Roa has not transformed them in any way. Although the sculptures’ shapes come from minimalism—the form of Drywall Piece 05 is slightly reminiscent of Ronald Bladen’s work—the intent is new. Its precise geometry and meticulous construction relay a technical finesse and the desire to tie art to everyday life. This focus was not the primary goal of the minimalist sculptors.

Ryan Roa, Tar Paper Piece #02, tar paper and staples on 2 x 4 and plywood frame, 8’ x 8’ x 4”, 2017, courtesy of Laura DeSantis-Olsson

Tar Paper Piece 02 (2017) is a large (eight feet square) relief sculpture that extends four inches from the wall. Divided into equal-size quadrants, the work also has two triangles, each with two components, that point down from the top and up from the bottom. Staples in regular alignment embellish the dark paper, which has tiny perforations. Its nakedness as a work of art utterly governed by its physical material has precedents; in 1966, Frank Stella said of his own art: “What you see is what you see.” The same is true of this show. Roa constructs works whose meaningfulness cannot easily, if at all, be extended beyond the fact of their physical constituency. This does push the art toward literalism rather than metaphor; and we know the latter is usually understood as the wellspring of imaginative art. But Roa has made a concerted effort to reduce art to the bare bones of its making.  

Ryan Roa, Drywall Piece #06, drywall, 2 x 4 studs and drywall screws, 7’ x 174” x 143”, 2017, courtesy of Laura DeSantis-Olsson

In Drywall Piece 06 (2017), we confront a bifurcated, architectural construction supported by simple spars. Once again, Roa refuses to alter the drywall, angled like tents that slightly overlap each other. The work feels rather like a ship, turned over and separated into two halves; it dominates, in nearly monumental fashion, the center of the gallery. Here, the sculpture’s form feels as if it were performing a function—but for what function the work is intended, we have no idea! By raising our expectations that the piece means something, Roa captures our attention. Yet he refuses to explain his motive, so we are left without a direction to follow. Thus, Roa’s art resists conventional readings; his art really does not signify more than what it is (we have only to look at his titles to see how literally he thinks of his own work). But even if Roa rejects metaphysics for truth in materials, perhaps another kind of exposition is taking place. Could it be that these works are demonstrating the artist’s refusal to make art that would support the overly abstract, often affected commentary we impose on art? It may be Roa is not so secretly demanding a moratorium on explanation—a decision that makes common sense in an overly glossed art world! WM 


Jonathan Goodman

Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications. 


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