Friday, March 28, 2008

Pure form

Cory Ryman at William Traver Gallery.

Published in the Weekly Volcano, March 27, 2008
Pictured: "Scattered," acrylic and enamel on wood by Cory Ryman, photo courtesy William Traver Gallery.

If you’re bored by the art of Donald Judd and Richard Serra — and Carl Andre and Agnes Martin and Robert Ryman, and even Hans Hoffman — and especially if you don’t even know or care who these artists are, then don’t bother to visit the Cory Ryman show at William Traver Gallery in Tacoma. On the other hand, if you appreciate pure form and color, you may agree with me that Ryman’s show is the best thing to hit Tacoma in quite some time.

It’s not easy to make art in a tradition derived from minimalist sculpture and color field paintings some 40 years after the movements began to die out and still make it fresh and exciting. But Ryman does just that. He comes by it honestly, too, being the son of abstract painters Robert Ryman and Merrill Wagner. Wagner, by the way, is a Tacoma native.

Showing at Traver are paintings (or perhaps more definitively, painted constructions) in acrylic and enamel on wood. They are bold and deceptively simple. In most of them, there is much more than meets the eye. Remember the old saying “what you see is what you get”? Ryman’s paintings are that and more. Look long enough and you keep finding little surprises: slight color changes you didn’t notice at first, a peekaboo line of dots, a change of direction, a bright red edge. Painting on wood panels, two-by-fours and found scraps of wood, he displays a tremendous awareness of the natural properties of his materials, bringing out unexpected elegance in coarse materials. The way he slavers the paint on looks more like a house painter than an artist — and a sloppy one at that. But there is a certain kind of finesse in the way he paints.

His colors of choice are 1) a DayGlo red-orange that burns the eyes and 2) muted off-whites and cream colors tinted gray, blue and green. In other words, he uses contrasts of the dullest and most intense colors. His red is as expansive as the glow of fire, and the muted tones seem to soak up every other color and put out the flames. The work is all about contrast and tension barely held in check.

Look at Scattered, pictured here (and sold, by the way). Chunks of red wood like primitive children’s blocks line the left and right sides. In the middle are flat painted shapes that mimic the wood blocks. The color is almost unbearably intense. Then there are little surprises such as a series of peach colored dots and the watery glow of the background color and a triangular shape on the right that is not noticeable at first. Upon further examination it becomes clear that Scattered is not scattered at all but carefully structured.

Staple Snake has the look of a finely crafted piece of sculpture despite being made of rough chunks of wood that are stapled together with very crude joints and painted in dull tones of gray, blue and silver. The thin line of wood gently curves out from the wall and casts a shadow that becomes part of the form.

Strap Slope is two flat rectangles painted peach and dull green with a burnished metal bar laid across it and unexpected hot zips of fuchsia. This is minimalist painting at its best.
Particles contrasts bands of rough particle board coated in glossy varnish with flat, white shapes outlined with black contour lines and chunks of red, blue and green wood. Here it is the smallest element — the contour line — that has the strongest impact, as if all of the other highly contrasting stuff is there just to disguise the fact that there’s some good line drawing going on.

Finally, the most astounding piece of all is an installation called Wave, which goes from floor to ceiling and stretches across a 17-foot wide white panel. It is made of two-by-fours attached in angular L-shapes and leaned against the wall forming a subtle wave pattern that turns upside-down halfway across the wall. The fronts of the boards are painted dull gray-green, white and peach, and parts of the insides of the boards are painted hot DayGlo red. The undulating wave form is almost disorienting in the way of a Richard Serra sculpture, and the color effects are simply beautiful. It is impossible to tell whether the color changes behind the boards are painted on or reflected.

To heck with my opening statement. Go see this show. If you don’t appreciate it, that’s your problem.

[William Traver Gallery, Tuesday-Sat 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday noon to 5 p.m., through April 6, 1821 East Dock St., Tacoma, 253.383.3685]

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