June 2016: Ryan W. Kelly

In Blog, Photography, Reviews By by Ken Aschliman On July 6, 2016

Ryan W. Kelly, Installation view


Ryan W. Kelly’s ceramic objects playfully toy with the traditional form of American decorative arts in combination with a lively cartoon aesthetic. The installation transports viewers to a Victorian-era living room, taken over with Day-Glo adornment, hand-painted rugs and tapestries, and odd ceramic fixtures. Elsewhere in the exhibition there is an abundance of hybridized animal figures with human heads, oftentimes the head of the artist himself. Aesthetically, the ceramic objects have strong stylistic lines that give the objects the quality of a two-dimensional illustration. Kelly dubs his style, “immediate, the unrefined and the crude,” for the sake of exclaiming the peculiarities of the handmade object.


The installation appears to be a stage backdrop and is reflective of Kelly’s experience working with puppet theaters, dance and burlesque groups, and with low-budget film projects (most notably the Green Porno series by Isabella Rosselini). In the past, Kelly has created similarly fantastical sets for his various art performances, including Mazeppa, The Sleep of Reason, and Let Me Be Your Scapegoat.


Ryan W. Kelly, Turkey Lamp


The objects in the installation vary between stages of functionality and artifice. The playful quality of the flowers and plants made of foam and paper is mimicked in the painted canvas rug and wall paper, and again in the vivid neon colors of the furniture. This space is for entertaining, but what zany cast of characters would gather here? The key to whom this space belongs may be found in the portrait of the artist dressed in a suit and top hat, riding a neon pink horse. The traditional pose evokes heroism, while the pink horse subverts that feeling with its goofiness. Perhaps the installation is intended to exist within the realm of the artist’s psyche.


Many of the ceramic objects are typical subjects of decorative art but aesthetically appear to be their strange fever dream. They appear like a wild manifestation of the subconscious. The ceramic Flat Spaniels appear to be spacey guardians of the room, the functional Turkey Lamp is larger than life and highly visceral, the sculpture Eat My Fish Lady seems to be a repulsive withered fishmonger, and the Cigarette Bunny seems to be sleep deprived and craving nicotine with its bulging red eyes. The lowbrow humor of the sculptures contrasts sharply with the refined ornament of Victorian decorative arts. Kelly draws from an illustrative bank of stylized images of pizza, sharks, cats, eye balls, turkeys, snakes, dogs, and bats. The images function as a decorative code referencing the quirks and values of contemporary creatives.


Ryan W. Kelly, Goat Man, Selfie Centaur and Snake Grandpa


The series of ceramic sculptures on the west wall (Goat Man, Selfie Centaur, and Snake Grandpa) all reference decorative art centered around Hellenic mythology. Each sculpture has an uncanny combination of an animal’s body with a human’s head as one form of hybridization in the work. Additionally, decorative elements of the ceramic sculptures are not represented as their expected 3-dimensional forms but rather as flattened shapes, like drawings of what they represent. Heavy line work is used to add detail to the forms so that they are visually situated between what you might see on television and what you might find in your grandmother’s home.


Ryan W. Kelly, Smokey Bear, Speak Softly and Skunk Pits


Departing from his 3-dimensional work Kelly also includes acrylic paintings, titled Cock Fight (Diptych), Smokey Bear, Speak Softly, and Skunk Pits. The diptych of two chickens again replaces the head of the animal with that of the artist. A cock fight stands in for a symbol of dominance and “masculine” blood sport; however, when Kelly has his face stand in for the chicken, the result is an uncanny awkwardness and the erosion of masculine stereotypes. In the other paintings Kelly includes himself among imagery that evokes the rugged backwoods and a Rooseveltian attitude towards masculinity. Kelly reacts in a candid and humorous way to the animals in the paintings. For instance, in Speak Softly he grimaces back at the bear, and in Skunk Pits he smirks.


Kelly’s work highlights the internal struggle contemporary artists often face when it comes to embracing or rejecting tradition, especially in a climate where new artistic movements quickly rise and fall. Old styles are reconciled with the contemporary in unexpected ways. Kelly’s hybrid objects suggest that the past is essential to modern art-making. Techniques, inspiration, and allusions from the past fuel contemporary creatives even if on a subliminal level. 


By Harlee Mollenkopf