Interview with Will Ryman
For his exhibition Anyone and No One Will Ryman becomes the first artist to show his work in both of the Paul Kasmin Gallery spaces simultaneously. For this reason, the site-specific nature of these works bears particular significance. Ryman’s Everyman (at the 293 Tenth Avenue space) denies the traditional gallery space’s authority as dictator of reception by becoming the space itself. Rubber shoe soles, bottle caps, and large swaths of denim cover every inch of white space, culminating in an ambiguous bidirectional face, which also serves as an entryway into the adjacent installation space. Here Ryman has included a more interactive installation that dictates the movements of the viewer through a towering maze of paintbrushes. At 515 W. 27th Street Ryman displays a feat of welding and material ingenuity with his monumental sculpture Bird, made entirely out of found and fabricated nails. For this series Ryman insists upon the potential for commonplace objects and functional materials to exceed their earthly bounds. I recently sat down with Will Ryman at his studio in the Bowery to discuss his current exhibition at the Kasmin Gallery.
Stephanie Peterson: I was curious what inspired you to choose the materials that you did for your installations?
Will Ryman: My work has always been about contradictions, about absurdism, and the human condition. What initially inspired this show changes, you know I’ll get an idea and it changes. Most ideas worth their salt are multi-faceted. The first inspiration was that I always kind of felt constricted by the Chelsea white-box. At Park Avenue I was trying to contradict the commercial symbolism of the rose by making the rose distorted, like from a child’s point of view.
Peterson: What’s the commercial symbolism of the rose?
Ryman: Well it’s romance, the elite, sophisticated, but also probably the most recognized flower globally. I wanted to a similar kind of thing with the Chelsea white-box by building a ninety foot figure out of mundane materials that were sort of referencing the working-class: old shoes, bottle caps. It became about so many other things. With the paintbrushes, that was sort of an accident. I was cleaning out my studio after I had installed the Park Avenue show and I was stacking these paintbrushes. The more I stacked, the more I realized that I wasn’t able to see the brush anymore. That excited me so I thought: let’s try to push this as far as I can, let’s see what happens. And then it became about a lot of things. I wanted to fuse these ideas together narratively and I thought that if I did these abstract paintbrush sculptures, they have no relationship to these other pieces I’m making, aside from the fact that I’m changing the meaning of the object. Whenever I do a show I try to provide an experience.
Peterson: It seems like you have altered some of the materials themselves, such as the nails, which you had enlarged for Bird. What was your process?
Ryman: Well first of all I made a model with store-bought nails. When I blew it up, technically you can’t use that many store-bought nails to make it look the way that I wanted it to look. But that crossed over between realism and surrealism, from banality to absurdism, and changed the meaning of that material completely. Like I said it’s about contradiction. You take a cold, hard material which references aggression and crucifixion, and I make it almost appear soft, that was my intention.
Peterson: How did the idea go from the nail to the bird?
Ryman: It was based on the Raven. Again it was about a contradiction, a symbol. Birds from the beginning of time reference the soul leaving the body. I wanted to make it imposing, dangerous, romantic, soft, all in one.
Peterson: How do you decide upon the scale of your work?
Ryman: I like working in large scale because it changes the space. For example, the reason I made the bird that big in the space that it’s in is that I wanted to make it appear as if it was in a cage: the joints in the ceiling, the skyline on top. It’s also about how a child would see the world. I still see the world much bigger than it actually is. More distorted than it is, more surreal than it is.
Peterson: So you were inspired by the confines of the space?
Ryman; That has to do with it. I was inspired initially by the poem, then it went on the be about so many other things.
Peterson: When you’re working with everyday, mundane materials are you choosing them based on their apparent banality?
Ryman: Yes and also there is meaning behind why I choose them, also how they look for the one use that they have. I can see and I can tell in abundance the changes that would apply to what I’m working on.
Peterson: I’ve heard you mention absurdism and absurdist philosophy. How did you come into contact with that?
Ryman: When I was writing I was inspired by a lot of absurdist philosophers: Camus, Beckett, Sartre, Ionesco, even Edgar Allen Poe. I don’t know if he’s an absurdist, but lots of those writers can be.
Peterson: So is it a way of deconstructing meaning in the world or in your life?
Ryman: Yeah- to search for meaning. To search for it by changing the meaning, altering it.
Peterson: So you were also a playwright I understand?
Ryman: A lot of visual art has inspired me too. Mostly my work comes from materials combined with these philosophies that inspire me that make me curious to explore what’s next. But it’s about the materials and my interpretation of whatever I’m building.
Peterson: Would you also say that there is an element of staging that’s happening?
Ryman: More of an interaction than a staging. With this show for example: normally people move around a sculpture to view it. With this show I wanted the sculpture to move around the viewer. That was again these contradictions that I like to play with. It changes the meaning of what you normally think of as a sculpture, as an object you walk around.
Peterson: So that the installation space become a person?
Ryman: Right, or an environment. The walls, the ceiling, and the floors take on a new meaning. When you walk into that gallery you don’t think of the Chelsea symbol of the gallery, you think of what is in there. I wanted my ideas to be on every inch of that wall.
Peterson: Is this a way of rejecting some kind of rejecting a kind of objective reality?
Ryman: Or changing it. I’m not really trying to reject these symbols, I’m trying to elegantly change them and change the way that they experience it.
Peterson: What would you like the viewer to experience?
Ryman: Nothing really specifically. I would like their eyes to get lost. For example with the face, I would like people to almost get lost in the shapes of that piece as well as your own experience of who you are, how you fit in, what your role is, what are you looking at, what does it mean to you, not what does it mean period, but what does it mean to you. Just to create an experience, I’m not trying to preach anything, just to change the experience from walking from the sidewalk into the gallery or walking from one gallery to another gallery you have a totally different experience.
Peterson: It looks like there are two different ways of looking at the face.
Ryman: When you go into the doorway that leads into the brushes if you go in there and look down the wall I almost feel like you’re on the moon or something, looking into the dead landscape. Then you walk into another corner of that room and you realize that you are standing basically in this figure wrapped around you. Wherever you stand in these galleries you will have a different experience. When you’re walking into the gallery with Bird you see a bird, you see it head on, this very imposing image. When you walk and stand at the rear of the bird you don’t see that image anymore, you see this avalanche of metal coming down at you, like you’re looking at the side of the mountain.
Peterson: So what do bottle caps have to do with the working-class everyman?
Ryman: That was more about referencing the flesh being temporary, the flesh being like ashes almost. Bottle caps are really referencing this detritus, this garbage. What I get from Dubuffet is that he was trying to make that beautiful. That was sort of what I was going for with this as well. The shoes are the same thing. All these shoes making up something completely different. Like all of these soles you know?
Peterson: Is this the direction you are moving towards?
Ryman: For example I’ll tell you about what I’m working on now. I’m doing these abstract shapes that are portraits. If I were to do my self-portrait I would take a T-shirt that I wear a lot, I would twist it up into a shape, throw it onto the couch or whatever. Whatever shape it falls into I would harden it with polymer or fiberglass so that I would have this T-shirt that’s hardened. Then I would cast the negative space inside of the shirt, pull that casting out and if it comes out as a shape that I am interested in, that I feel something from, then I would blow that shape up and rebuild or recreate that shape using a found object that is meaningful to me, in my interpretation. So I would end up with something like the paintbrushes. Let’s say that paintbrushes were meaningful to me, right? I would make the shape of my T-shirt out of paintbrushes and I would call it my self-portrait, yet it would be this abstract shape. If I did your portrait for example, it would be the same thing, I would make your portrait made out of an object that I would interpret as being meaningful to you.
Peterson: So you would be approaching it from the other side? The opposite of the everyman made of serialized, impersonal materials.
Ryman: Yes, that’s the intent.
Peterson: That sounds interesting, I look forward to seeing what comes of that project. I think that those are all the questions I have for you, thank you so much.
Ryman: Alright, thank you.
Stephanie Peterson is a New York-based writer. Her research interests include figurative painting in Europe, intersections between traditional and contemporary media, and the revival of historical techniques and themes as a means to cope with trauma. She is currently enrolled in the art history PhD program at the CUNY Graduate Center.
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