“Relics That Reflect Reality”
Interview by Emily Jaeger, Features Editor
Ryan Schroeder received his MFA from the New York Academy of Art and his BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art. His paintings have been exhibited in numerous galleries, including an upcoming exhibition, Ryan Schroeder: Recent Paintings at the Chenango Arts Council, Norwich, NY. He has received support from multiple scholarships and residencies including the Museum Insel Hombroich in Germany, the Shanghai University in China, the Contemporary Art Center, Woodside in New York, and the Vermont Studio Center.
Jaeger: Your paintings appearing in this month’s issue feature interior spaces that evoke Kenopsia, which is both an invented term to describe the eeriness of a once bustling place and the title of one of your paintings. How did these spaces become the object of your artistic inquiry?
Schroeder: My earlier work contained figures. Yet even the earliest works were never about what was happening with the figure. The surroundings were more important. I felt as if the inclusion of the figure usurped the meaning of the piece. People tend to dominate pictures, and that contradicted my interest in depicting a mental space. I would paint empty rooms periodically until eventually I realized that what interested me the most was painting space itself. The act of painting spaces, spending time away from the world, and just being alone in the space, left me with a feeling of peace.
Jaeger: You write that your paintings are “relics that reflect reality.” What is your artistic process for achieving this conceptual goal?
Schroeder: My paintings undergo a process of brutality as part of their creation. Like the buildings they represent, the works are exposed to the elements, scraped down, painted over, and trampled. For example, working on “Kenopsia,” I would dissolve the paint at the end of each day. I would scrape down the canvas, lay it out horizontally, and then spray the canvas with turpentine and raw metallic pigment. The turpentine pooled unpredictably, distorting the painted images.
I often paint over completed works. “Kenopsia” and “Nodus Tollens” were originally completely different paintings that depicted scenes from my childhood. In “Nodus Tollens,” I used my iPhone to photograph a building in Williamsburg that was about to be demolished. I worked over the original painting with the aid of a low-resolution Xerox print. As the print deteriorated from being handled, I incorporated the scraps on the canvas. Every time light came through my window I would circle the pattern with an oil stick. I slapped on paint with a spatula or stick.
Jaeger: In your works overall you employ a wide variety of mediums, including hemp, Xerox ink, charcoal, and marble dust. How did you arrive at this mixed-medium in your work? How have these materials shaped your artistic process?
Schroeder: My materials are always changing depending on where I am. The use of Xerox ink came to me when someone in the family gave me a box full of an un-patented ink product that the company didn’t know what to do with. As a crude metaphor for a photograph, I mixed the powdered ink together with acrylic fiber paste and scraped it over a drawing of a facility I discovered while I was in China. The archival quality of the ink is uncertain, but the incredibly saturated color reminded me of those disposable film cameras Kodak made in the 1980s.
I think about socio-economics a lot in my paintings, which are a type of anthropological documentation of spaces that were once culturally significant. The mediums I use to depict a building are comprised of its ashes. An abandoned building down the street represents a group of people that once prospered and are probably no longer doing so. Maybe their children were raised in an impoverished industrial dead-zone as I was. What is now a hollow shell that no one looks at was once the reason people moved there in the first place—some left, and the ones that couldn’t were forgotten.
Jaeger: In “Spatial Configuration of the Moment,” you have left areas of the hemp bare of paint, so that the original drawing is visible, a common feature in your work. Why did you choose to leave your drawing visible?
Schroeder: Years ago, when I was working in the Hamptons, I discovered that tucked into the woods, unbeknownst to the inhabitants of the beautiful mansions just minutes away, was an entire town that was condemned, gated, and blocked by railroad tracks. The buildings had been left intact except for the natural patina of time. It was utterly surreal and unexpected, like a scene out of the twilight zone.
The linguistic shift from one medium to another was intended as a metaphor for time, a sort of past/present coexistence, resulting in a visual gestalt. To make the painting, I taped off the parameters and scraped on fiber paste to create a border that resembled a Xerox print. Using straight-line chalk, as one might on a construction site, I laid in a bogus perspectival system. The perspective is nonsensical, but is close enough almost to create a believable space. The quasi-illusion is meant to disorient the viewer.
After marking where objects should be placed according to the false logic, I lay a 9’x7’ piece of hemp on the ground and transcribed the objects using India Ink. In contrast to the more opaque areas painted with oil, the ink has an ephemeral quality. It operates as a kind of symbolic erasure and contradicts the implied compositional hierarchy of objects in space. The exposure of the hemp is a reminder of material reality.
Jaeger: Your works can range from the more realistic of “Spatial Configuration of the Moment,” to the more impressionistic of “Kenopsia.” Can you talk about these varying approaches?
Schroeder: “Kenopsia” is based more on how the place felt when I visited and is a less recognizable image. In contrast, “Spatial Configuration of the Moment” is based on a place that inspired questions in the narrative sense. I wanted to understand the history of the area. I wanted to create a portrait of the place. Therefore, specific elements of the buildings were more important.
I would disagree with the use of the term “impressionistic” about “Kenopsia.” “Kenopsia” is not about the effects of light on a surface. Rather, I was exploring the ability to perceive light when losing oxygen. The piece was inspired by a facility nearby my studio in Bushwick. Exploring this particular building caused me an unusual amount of anxiety. Walking through the site, I felt a sense of claustrophobia. I thought of what it might be like to suffocate: how lights might become overexposed, or blur, and how one might lose a sense of balance.
Jaeger: In your artist’s statement you write that “your main focus is finding a means to visually transmit the dominant psychological feeling of a person or place.” What was the artistic process of transmitting the dominant psychological feeling in, for example, “Inside”?
Schroeder: For me, the process is about being mentally present in time and space, and allowing oneself to experience sensations as they come. I think about how one could simultaneously represent multiple states of being without resorting to a narrative, and also without asking too much from the audience.
I see “Inside” as part social realism, abstraction, and a self-portrait. I considered the scene to speak to a sense of entrapment and desolation. I kept thinking of a poem I read by Wen Zhengming (1470-1559): “The lane at my gate is desolate and drear, few are those who come to call. . . . My friends are scattered few and far apart and the rain just drizzles on.” From my window I can see a water treatment facility, storage units, scrapyards, an indoor shooting range, and shops of bulk imported goods.
Jaeger: Many of your paintings, such as “Kenopsia” and “Nodus Tollens,” draw their titles from the blog The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, a depository of newly coined, poetic words for different types of sadness. How has this blog influenced your work?
Schroeder: Titles often feel arbitrary or superfluous. An artist makes a piece that means many things to them personally. The words used to refer to a piece are a rough approximation. I try to find a title that ties my painting to a work of literature that is conceptually aligned. Referring to this blog provides the reader with an immediate, albeit watered down, synopsis of what the work is about.
I do appreciate the weight of words. Sonically I thought these titles had a quality that was apropos of the images. I enjoyed using a title that seemed to imply historical baggage. I was relieved to learn that the titles were in keeping with my intention when I met a linguist in Germany who explained that the etymological basis of “Kenopsia” is “Kenos” in ancient Greek, which means “emptiness” or “nothing.”
Jaeger: Who are some of your influences, artistic or otherwise? Could you talk about how they influenced the pieces in this issue?
Schroeder: I am interested in artists who are exploring different materials, challenging the possibilities of illusion, and engaging notions of history. Kurt Kocherscheidt, because his works are so tactile and made with such a sense of urgency. Also Jannis Kounellis, Alberto Burri, Anselm Kiefer and Thomas Demand.
Recently I have been looking at Japanese Outsider Art. I saw an exhibition at the Hermitage in Amsterdam that spoke to me. The works seemed to radiate raw energy. Sawada Shinichi, for example, had the most psychologically intense ceramic sculptures I have ever seen. Some of the works in the show had a visual force similar to African Boli figures. They were bucolic and spiritual.
I have also been exploring the period rooms at the Met. I enjoy how the museum alters the light in the space in contrast to the time of day. Somehow the lights seem to underline the artifice of the installation without diminishing their intrigue.
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