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WHITEWALL: Your new Exhibit “Ritual for Letting Go” opens at Two Rams in a few days. Tell me about it.
RYAN SCHNEIDER: Jessica Hodin, the Director of Bleecker Street Arts Club, introduced Tali Wertheimer from Two Rams to my work. She came over to do a visit for that show and immediately loved everything she saw and said her friend was opening a new gallery. It was very out of the blue. I had this body of work that had been developing since September, and I didn’t have a solo show set up. When I was making this work I didn’t have a deadline, so there was no pressure for it to be cohesive. I had a lot of freedom to experiment.
WW: I read that for this series you approached the canvas without a formal plan for this body of work. Can you tell me more about this process?
RS: I’ve been showing for a little while in New York and have always thought of myself as a figurative painter. A few years ago I would always have photo references, preliminary sketches, and I would plan out the paintings meticulously. With this work I had some plan, but they were really off the cuff. I would get an idea, for instance, walking around or travelling, and I might have a quick sketch or an idea in my head. But once I start, I have no idea what the paintings are going to look like in the end. I just start painting, kind of how an abstract painter approaches a work, and I let what’s in front of me unfurl. Most of the time they happen really fast, within a day and one or two sessions.
WW: This new series explores “mysteries of the night” and “essential truths the darkness reveals.” What kind of essential truths do you think are revealed in darkness?
RS: This series of work comes from a couple of different places, one is my experiences going to Mexico and being in the jungle at the beach at night, and the atmosphere when you’re in tropical places. The moisture, the sounds, those things are hard to capture in a painting. Over the summer I made a painting by accident. I had a small canvas and I painted it completely black, and while it was still wet I took my palette knife and carved an image into the canvas with a knife. I left it thinking, that was a funny little thing, and didn’t give it a second thought. But I had a studio visit that day and other people just loved it and so I decided to try something more deliberate.
When you’re carving into the paint like that, once you scrape a line it kind of has to stay, and you cant erase it. I was using a palette knife instead of a brush. I was almost handicapped and I couldn’t be too precious about the line.
WW: It’s kind of an inverted process, like printmaking.
RS: Exactly, you have to accept whatever mistakes are made, and it’s not a mistake anymore, it’s just part of the process. I was very happy with it, with the immediacy of it. It had just taken me an hour as opposed to a week or a month. And it felt good and fresh, because the process was so new. And this tropical, beachy, branchy foliage imagery appeared very organically. I had absorbed a lot of it. Somehow, unintentionally using that process, with the black paint and the color underneath it, I was getting the same feeling I would get being in the jungle at night. There was this aura about them that I had never captured before in a painting.
WW: Was the branch series inspired by the jungle?
RS: I was jogging in Prospect Park during the winter and I saw these trees with no leaves on them, and noticed the black silhouettes stark against the thick fog. The black shapes looked almost like creatures. I knew I had to paint them, I knew it was time. But I wanted to do the reverse, with the black as the negative space and the tree branches in color. After painting the branches I scraped one little bird in it, and eventually filled the tree branches up with birds.
WW: This series deals with themes of spirituality and magic. Are you personally interested in these things?
RS: Yeah, these are all really spiritual paintings. With my older work I was really intentional, everything was full control, full intention with very crowded imagery. I always thought painting had to be a Herculean struggle. But this work came out of me innately. What I would do before I started these works was sit and meditate, clear my mind, and say to myself “I don’t know what a painting looks like, I’m open to all kinds of possibilities,” and things just started coming out. A lot of the time when I would step away, I felt like they had painted themselves. The imagery has a mystical element to it.
WW: Tell me about the mask painting, El Diablo.
RS: This mask painting started as a bowl. I wanted to paint a big ceramic bowl, and I turned it vertically I had this big round shape, and I thought, that’s either an owl or a mask or a head. I started filling in sections, and this mask appeared. I wanted to paint masks before, but there were so many other artists who have painted masks, it’s a tradition in modernism. Masks are used for these mysterious transformative ceremonies that are so foreign to someone growing up in America. They always had a mysterious pull to me as objects.
Another thing with this work is about is holding back, learning when to stop. Because I’ll just keep going with a painting where every inch is covered with color and marks, but I’ve learned when you hit a spot where something just is right. You can kill a painting to the point where it becomes masturbatory, where you are just saying, “see, look how obsessive I can be about this thing.” It’s kind of an ego thing. These paintings are more about allowing the painting to be what it wants to be not what I need it to be.
“Ritual for Letting Go” will be on view at Two Rams through April 28.