Lifting is Work

An essay for the exhibition, Lift Here and Be Happy: New Paintings by Paul Ryan at Reynolds Gallery, Richmond, VA (September - October 2005)

I stopped reading fashion magazines years ago.  Silly, narcissistic statements like “having just turned 26, I find myself preoccupied with anti-aging anxiety” make me laugh, and I can’t be amused like that all the time.  Paul has never read them and, after spending almost three decades with him, he seems among the least likely to be interested in the design and manufacture of identity that such magazines promote.  But there is something about this evolving series of elongated paintings, which he began six years ago, that forces attention to the ideas suggested by fashion’s baroque elaboration and its pervasive, cultural grip.

The shapes from the beginning derived from fashion imagery and, initially, were all negative spaces within and around the human body, carefully drawn and floating from left to right through veils of color.  Now Paul makes the shapes by tracing actual cutouts.  These negative -- and sometimes positive -- shapes no longer shift as obscure texts across the paintings’ span but bleed in from their edges, spreading like murky shadows or gaping holes, sheathed in skins of mild and peculiar color.  Here and there, a recognizable image – a spindly arm, for example – flails like a thing trapped in the assertive but inconclusive forms.

Sometimes I help Paul cut shapes from magazines, like cutting paper dolls, and we sit in companionable domestic silence, paying fastidious attention to something that interests neither of us.  I find that the images in fashion magazines aren’t funny.  They are brittle without genuine human fragility, self-consumed, static, and determined.  Time and mindfulness are the enemies of their ferocious perfection that is devised to be a constant erasure of actual living with its pain, enjoyment, experience, pity, and wearing away.

The byproduct of the scrutiny that occurs through the formal activity of cutting, tracing, and painting is thinking about what Perry Anderson meant in The Origins of Postmodernity when he called contemporary culture “an aquarium of floating, evanescent forms [that are] functions of a monetary universe.”  Contemporary human beings seem stuck in a morass of desires, but Aristotle said, “choice is deliberate desire,” an account of purposefulness that extends to every act, conscious and unconscious.  It suggests that the manufacture of experience is inevitable but also that there may be a difference between simply having desires and having desires that you think about.  Or, as Terry Eagleton put it in After Theory, “Aristotle believed that being human was something you had to get good at through constant practice, like learning Catalan or playing the bagpipes.”

In the same book, Eagleton also nimbly characterized theory as “the taxing business of trying to grasp what is actually going on,” a thought that sheds a lot of light on the practice of being human.  The paintings in lift here and be happy, whose surface subtlety is often hard won and whose source material provokes exacting questions, seem to reflect the same thing:  a kind of straightforward process that is not at all simple.

Dinah Ryan

Art critic Dinah Ryan is a contributing editor for Art Papers Magazine and Gallery Director for the Stanier Gallery at Washington and Lee University.