The Studio Visit: Ryan Hackett
by J.W. Mahoney
Maybe the most natural way for me to present a studio visit with Ryan Hackett is by offering a subjectively-captioned photographic tour of his current studio-home, a one-story house on a tree-lined street in Bethesda, Maryland, near Rock Creek Park, where he lives with his wife and two young children. Its patio-garden is under heavy renovation, and Ryan makes his paintings there, in a small outbuilding. But his art making is everywhere.
I’ve known Ryan’s work for about ten years, from the summer of 2000, when he was a founding member of the artist collective Decatur Blue, located on the floor above an auto-body shop on Vermont Avenue a block away from the 9:30 Club. In those days, as well as now, his work was hybrid: as an example, an abstract painting in a plexiglass box was connected to a fog-machine which would blow a cloud of vapor across it, so it was sonic and performative, as you watched and heard the machine work. Not great for preserving the painting, but the piece was unforgettable.
After Decatur Blue (along with Signal 66, another DC independent venue) lost their spaces, he wisely left DC with his wife to get an MFA at the San Francisco Art Institute, graduating in 2007, returning here to work. And in 2010, he received the Sondheim Prize for his show in Baltimore. As I said in the attached video from the Kojo Namdi show, what was truly signal in Ryan’s presence in this area was that he actually chose to come back here, as an aesthetic decision and a career choice…
Ryan e-mailed me that he was having a show in late October, in New York, Natural Synthetics, at the Arsenal Gallery in Central Park, so would I want to see what was up with the new stuff? Absolutely. So this first image is from the kitchen, a crib visible, as well as a paper-wrapped shell of a turtle, connected to another white box, by an electrical cord. On the right is an organ, which Ryan retrieved from its almost landing in a dumpster at the Katzen Art Museum at American University. And what’s audible are insect noises, from another piece in the room.
The next image is closer. Each sculptural piece in his show also has an audio component, so they’re never only sculptures, but venues for performative events, creating a further level of abstraction. Next image is one of Ryan’s earlier paintings, in the same room, of a photo-reproduction of an owl superimposed by an extremely abstract form, and what’s significant in this piece, as in all his work, is that these forms are intended to merge, as if they imply each other’s presences.
The radical mystery of that conjunction may be why Ryan Hackett makes art. These are not hip contrivances, but real inquiries into the deep, obvious creativity seen in natural form, and how conscious human aesthetic intentions may be – ought to be seen – as also fundamentally natural. So their improbable union may seem improvisational, and sure, that’s what it is – but remember what serious grace has emerged from jazz and rock improvisational expressions…
So then, here’s Ryan inside, with his eyes semi-closed, then outside in the patio under construction, and finally at the entrance to his painting studio. He doesn’t like to be photographed, for all the right reasons, but here the three images are.
To these next two images taken from one of his newest diptychs, in his painting studio… What Ryan has always moved sort of relentlessly into are hybridizations of the human and the natural, whether visual, physical, or audible, and his new paintings are further such investigations. This time, he’s merging images of human objects, like a hand-held video camera, with natural forms, like a cicada, and his improvisational abstractions are more complex, and more wildly expressive.
Such abstract expressions used to be ends in themselves, considering artists like Franz Klein or Jack Youngerman, where sheer painterly energy, or the beauty of abstract natural form was plenty enough. But it’s, uh, the 21st century… so. What’s Ryan doing?
This next image is another fierce union of human structures – a roof antenna – and an elk’s horn, by an even more imposing and complex set of abstract forms.
Ryan says, in his press release: “As our culture moves further from the natural world, we continue to pull certain elements of it along with us. The more we pull these elements along, the more bizarre their manifestation. Nature relaxation CDs, potted plants, and captive animals provide a few eerily soothing examples of how we attempt to remain connected to nature while further embedding ourselves in urban environments.”
But there’s every reason to see these works as allegories. These 21st century days seem to be all about the ungovernable conditions of both nature and human culture, and our best art reflects the beauties and the truths of this unfolding, vast drama. Ryan Hackett’s hybrids – sculptural, sonic, or painted – demonstrate how both the natural and the human worlds can be reconciled, assimilated – and overwhelmed – by a commanding abstraction, that may represent fate, dharma, divinity, and/or the enduring, essential power of the unknown…
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