Friday, May 15, 2009

Shows: Abel Ryan & Inari Kylänen

Armed with my new steno-pad + camera, your intrepid blogger crashed the BFA thesis defense of artist Abel Ryan at the UAF gallery in his exhibit “Changing Faces.”
Originally from Metlakatla, Abel’s work depicts a unique blending of contemporary and traditional Native Alaskan imagery, materials and techniques. There is a transformative, psychological dimension to his pieces, in particular with the masks, which had an additional interactive element (hinted at with prints in paint of his youngest son's tiny feet strategically placed at the base of the freestanding pedestals) that added another layer to the show when a viewer assumed the position and looked through the masks. This was an interesting note of distinction – most masks in a gallery usually are fetishistic art objects mean only for objective display on a wall, “out of reach” as Abel said, and this points up that there is always more than one side, metaphorically speaking as well as craft-wise.

Still, one of the main pieces for me actually exemplified purposeful detachment in the imposing “White Moon Lighting the Dark” mask, which was intentionally hung unusually high and left alone to dominate one entire wall while overlooking the assemblage below. Another good example of letting pieces breathe and assume greater proportionate presence when not crowded together like in many student shows

So besides the personal and cultural Tsimshian symbolism, this facet of excellent usage of physical space was of note; it’s rare to see a student consciously and deliberately incorporate the design of their show's layout in such a way. Here were three distinct, concentric circles of focus and intent rippling out from the core of two sculptures of figures curled into protective fetal positions. Next out were the masks on stands, and then a final surrounding periphery of prints (woodcuts, etchings, engravings etc.), which re-presented in a self-referential way either specific works on display or in ceremonial use. So the thematic message carried through several mediums and methods of display, and was open-ended as far as interpretation; multiple meanings could be gotten from the works collectively or individually, or whether you knew the creator’s specific intent and context or not. Plus this had the advantage of compensating for what I felt were some of the weaker pieces lacking in formal development, and tied together the exhibit in the way that a successful solo show can often show more about the artist than the artwork alone. Or something like that. At one point, from my outsider’s perspective, the assembled faculty seemed to mimic the show’s meta-statement, as they ringed Abel while he was talking about his work and describing his influences. Afterwards I jokingly suggested he should have curled up with the centerpieces and enacted the defensive personality. He does describe the exhibit as “a still-life performance in his statement.

Another personal note of interest for me was seeing the growth of a peer take place over the past couple years, maturing and exploring, growing and evolving. For a while there Abel seemed to be plateauing into an all-too familiar rut: that of being a successful artist selling his work and supporting his family but not really quite breaking out and experimenting with anything particularly challenging. His carving spoons for gift shops and my creating cartoons have a lot in common, as far as being lulled into a safe, creative complacency, and it was great to see faculty help to push him to explore larger concepts and pieces, and tackle deeper, more introspective issues. To me, it's always inspirational to see someone balance the commercial production of works with the artsy-fartsy, and successfully challenge themselves as an artist. Based on seeing Abel shift gears to tackle this body of work with the same discipline and devotion has been one of the brighter success stories in our repartment.

Meanwhile on the other side of town, one of my favorite artists has a show: Inari Kylänen’s “New Paintings” in the lower gallery at Well Street. Inari is an accomplished and skilled artist (and teacher) regardless of the medium: as her comics and editorial panels, graphics and drawings are all wonderful - though with my biases I have always preferred her comics versus full-scale paintings. Since one of her strengths is in constructing narratives, and the pieces displayed here are so strongly illustrative but without an accompanying story, they often feel somewhat like orphaned works. This adds to the melancholic whimsy underlying some of her works, which seem subtly different when viewed in an empty space without surrounding people and noise. I probably project too much, as many of her images are happier than I can stand. But these paintings collectively uplift any sterile atmosphere; many a house or business would do well with such an installation of color and "cuteness." I can't wait for a rumored book to come out soon, and always look forward to seeing her distinctive style and simple, strong designs on anything, anywhere. Especially on, say, posters.

Shown here are a couple snapshots of the space, and below, a close-up of IMHO best-in-show “A Good Day for the Studio Assistant” (acrylic + cat hair). The accompanying backstory to this piece explains how someone without any cats can captivate so well what cat-lovers everywhere know and love. Two paws up.

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