Ryan Pierce at Elizabeth Leach

Ryan Pierce, Blue Rooster, 2008
acrylic on canvas over panel
Represented by Elizabeth Leach Gallery*

I graduated in a hail storm with Ryan Pierce a little over six years ago. Both Ryan and I received BFA's in Craft with an emphasis on drawing and painting. Over the course of four years we took many classes together, and I remember thinking then that Ryan Pierce already had what so many of us did not: a direction. His passions and proclivities, while inchoate, were in place.

I tell you all this as means of disclaimer— I respect and admire Ryan Pierce. I have for years; and while that doesn't make me uniquely qualified to review his solo exhibit at Elizabeth Leach Gallery (on display through the end of this month), it does offer me an extra layer of personal presumption about understanding his technical tendencies and allegorical preoccupations. Some art critics write reviews with far less. . .

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The first thing that struck me about the work in Written from Exile was that Ryan has pushed himself to become a far more painterly painter. Many of his stylistic tendencies from years ago are still very much in effect: saturated complementary colors (the blues and oranges of Blue Rooster), crisp graphic shapes (the furrowed ground upon which said Blue Rooster stands), and the outlining of select shapes with a tidy line of darker tone (as evidenced in the rocks clutched by the blisteringly orange talons of the aforementioned Blue Rooster)— but they are tempered by a newer acquiescence for allowing the nature of the paint to run a bit wild.

Carefully selected areas of textured under-painting are allowed to contribute to the overall melange of color, and they contrast well with Pierce's very crisp, albeit periodically fussy, draftsmanship. There are rag wiped waves of glaze-infused pigment in Sea Oats (After Cormic McCarthy) and suminagashi-like tree trunks that dominate the landscape in The Fog Collectors (After Ival Lackovic Croata). This acceptance of the process of painting allows the drips and stains of the developing work to contribute to the palimpsest of imagery, and resonate well with Pierce's themes of environmental shift and the marginaliazation of human existence within a world both fecund and wasted.

Ryan Pierce, Havasu, 2009
acrylic on canvas over panel

When considering Pierce's subject matter, it is hard to not be struck by the oddly blasé view of mankind's future that he presents. In Havasu a wrecked motor boat has been consumed by desert and surrounded by equal parts cacti and plastic water bottles. Arizona's aquatic playground has become naught but sand and refuse. Only a fire pit outside of the capsized boat and a sleeping bag (which may or may not be inhabited) grant any evidence of continued human existence. The boat has been draped to provide the sleeper an escape from the sun, but the drape is more a funerary shroud for the former Havasu than it is an expression of human survival.

In fact, most of the references to humanity in the show are references by way of necessity; by which I mean that Pierce wishes to convey to the viewer that some semblance of humanity will survive the impending environmental upheaval, but he does so only to point out that our role will be that of any other creature trying to scratch out survival in an ultimately ambivalent environment. We'll have no divine spark. We'll feel no sense of entitlement. We will not recognize the tools of our own fall.

Ryan Pierce, Umpqua, 2009
acrylic on canvas over panel

Umpqua, which is hung next to Havasu, is even more overtly narrative, depicting a wood paneled trophy room that has been attacked by the very woods it used to victimize. Deer graze off grass growing atop the floor and the trophy heads of boars mounted to the wall leeringly sprout tufts of green. Books slide off hardwood shelving and a snag has fallen through the ceiling to crush the wooden dining table. The deer have accessed this former interior through broken plate glass windows that are now simply reminders of the former separation between inside and out. The narrative is clear— so clear as to be almost patronizing, and therefore, in my mind, the least successful work in the exhibit.

Ryan Pierce, Comet, 2009
acrylic on canvas over panel

If you contrast Umpqua with the magnificently painted, and far less pontific, Comet (which hangs on the opposite wall of the gallery) a sense of how Pierce is also working towards a much more subtle exploration of Nature's intrinsic power can be gleaned. There is no evidence of the human figure in this turquoise lagoon, no sleeping bag amidst the massive blue pumpkins or abnormally green ferns. Comet dangles a smoldering oil drum over cereleun blue water. The drum is lashed to a tree limb that looks as if, at any moment, it will lever forward and extinguish the flame in the lagoon below. The surrounding environment may already look irradiated; it may suffer even more from that final infusion of burning chemical, but ultimately it continues to put forth life. The vines adorn the tree limbs and the ground cover works its way around the remnants of a barbed wire fence. The eradication of man's folly is inevitable. Mother Nature, through dent of her longevity and our extinction, is granted the TKO.

It is not without cause that Pierce's most arresting paintings are the ones that show the least evidence of human activity. The apocryphal presence of the roosters pull far more conceptual weight than the allegorical thicket that makes up Easter Island (pictured on the show card for the exhibit). Easter Island's cautionary tale about capitalism, fascism, religious dogma and environmental control, while beautifully rendered, just feels too similar in its over-loaded presentation to the inane quantities of goods, ideas, and beliefs being critiqued.

Despite the few ups and downs I encountered in Written from Exile, I feel that Ryan Pierce delivers an impressive show. It is for good reason that he is one of the more talked about artists in Portland right now. As was true all those years ago in our painting classes, he is at his most poignant when he's pursuing his themes without resorting to the explicit narrative. In the future, I hope that Pierce treats his paintings as the stenography of environmental possibility, not the moralizing indictment of an irredeemable mankind. That doesn't necessitate that he dilute his direction, only that he question when enough is truly enough.

*Written from Exile will be on display at Elizabeth Leach Gallery through October 31, 2009. All images copyright Ryan Pierce.

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