Absence as Presence: Paul Ryan's "Post-Human" Body

By Colin Gardner.

Although Paul Ryan has spent the past fifteen years as a predominantly nonrepresentational painter, his latest imagery incorporates fragments of the human body in order to locate and explore human identity as a cultural and mediated construct.  Thus what appear at first glance to be organic, biomorphic forms or flat, multifaceted geometries turn out to be abstracted renditions of the negative spaces found between and around limbs and torsos appropriated from commercial advertising and fashion layouts.  In this sense, conventional figure-ground relationships are actually reversed, insofar as empty space – in effect, somatic lack – becomes the work’s formal “subject,” while the original model’s body is extended and transformed into an enveloping, contextualizing color field.  Ryan thus creates a fascinating paradox: the more he references the objective characteristics of the figurative – the body as a signifier of absence -- the more he reinforces the non-referential tenets of his paintings’ formal vocabulary and transforms lack into pure presence.

This annihilation of the figure and the feeling of horror that accompanies it is characteristic of the postmodern sublime, what Jean-François Lyotard has called “the inhuman.”  However, for painter and theorist Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, “The inhuman, where Lyotard finds the sublime, is still concerned with the human, with terror, the void, with what accompanies the human, with what engulfs or is the field of extension for the human, with the idea of the not-human.  The post-human is what comes afterward.  It has no need of terror; a void is its home, its natural habitat, as it were.”[i]  Re-constructed from glossy images of the disinterested, self-confidently athletic and masculinized models that one finds in the prototypical glamour shots -- men and women singularly lacking in empathy, psychology and personal history – Ryan’s new works are predicated on a similar notion of void-as-presence.     

Ryan reinforces this sense of perceiving a world of synthetic simulacra by limiting his palette to colors rarely seen in nature.  The artist floats his negative forms in a sea of post-nuclear hues -- day-glo orange, luminescent lime green and lavender – that evoke the highly charged, “radioactive” color combinations beloved of Madison Avenue.  Instead of Barnett Newman’s deeply resonant reds and blues, which oscillate between profound depth and shallow, surface movement, Ryan’s palette is actually closer to that of the video screen, constructing a wholly technological sublime where the fragmented, dismembered negative space of the body oscillates in perpetual motion without obvious beginning or end.  This is Gilbert-Rolfe’s “post-human,” a postmodern condition where human knowledge is necessary, indeed desirable, but where human beings – being-as-human(ism) – are essentially redundant.

This unbounded extension of forms – what Hegel once called “bad infinity” -- is also, as it turns out, the very terrain of nonrepresentational painting, allowing Ryan to re-appropriate the characteristics of the figurative (albeit dismembered) to the aesthetic ends of the non-objective.  Like the post-human body, nonrepresentation has traditionally produced surfaces that are also depths, and negative spaces that can also reverberate as concrete forms.  Instead of easily distinguishable static relationships between figure and ground, part and whole, center and margin, Ryan’s canvases give us an indeterminate movement across the surface of the picture plane that is pure flow and becoming, much like the effect of watching a wide screen television monitor.

However, lest we lament the decline of somatic agency as one more example of postmodern alienation, Ryan ultimately restores the body’s productive motility to the viewing experience itself.  What the paintings lack in terms of concrete human representation is more than compensated for in terms of phenomenological agency.  This is largely the result of Ryan’s compositional format: the most recent paintings are extremely wide and narrow (18 x 90”), much like the slit-like observation openings in gun emplacements, so that we have a sense of looking out from the interior of the gallery into a broader landscape beyond.  This creates a palpable sense of depth, encouraging the spectator to project their body into the painting, much like the imaginary entering of a filmic mise-en-scène in the cinema.  Moreover, the sheer width of the canvas makes it impossible to take in the work’s overall perspective in a single-eye, Albertian cone-of-vision.  We are forced to walk back and forth in front of the work, adding literal somatic movement to the destabilizing effects of the work’s retinal hue, thereby reasserting the power of the spectator’s motile body to produce space as both surface and depth. 

Ryan thus places us in an aporia or impasse between presence – the literal existence of the painting offering itself up to the spectator’s body – and absence – that same body transformed into negative space within the representational world of the work’s signification.  The “post-human” is thus mitigated (although hardly overcome) by a more traditional phenomenology.  Here, the perceiving self both defines itself in the “illusion of unity” generated by its active role as the all-seeing spectator – “The body does everything,” as Merleau-Ponty puts it – but is also constantly reminded that the painting doesn’t need us to humanize and rationalize it in order to exist as a pure simulacrum – “The body does nothing.”  It’s in this provocative gap between the affirmation of being and the creative possibility of the void that Ryan does his very best work.   

Colin Gardner is Professor of Art Theory & Criticism, and also teaches in the Film Studies and Comparative Literature Departments at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

[i] Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime, New York: Allworth Press, 1999, p. 137.