Chicago

Michael Ryan

Robbin Lockett Gallery

Michael Ryan’s paintings and drawings of mulberry trees or catalpa branches are less about their titular subjects than about the artist’s obsessive rituals of image-making. Ryan draws trees as if he’d just thought them up, and his arduously calibrated renderings have the feel of architect’s plans—blueprints for an enchanted forest.

Ryan’s use of trees as a subject approaches fixation. He has been making images of gnarled trunks and twisted limbs for almost seven years, at first in pen and ink on sheets of translucent vellum, and more recently by routing pieces of plywood. The 11 works shown here—a suite of four darkly stained plywood panels, and seven graphite-on-vellum drawings reveal the processes of their making as the object of Ryan’s art.

Mulberry Tree #1, 1985–87, is the common title for the four large painted plywood works. In each of these, a tree trunk has been rendered from one of the four points of the compass, with every line cut into the surface of the wood by a router saw wielded as a drawing implement. The resulting cuts have been painted in with touches of blue, orange, nearly chartreuse green, and a marigold yellow. The same palette has been used, carefully (almost invisibly), to enhance the grain of the plywood. Ryan’s painted grain follows exactly the pattern on the original plywood, alternately highlighting and shadowing it against the vivid gouges of the tree drawing. One panel—the “South View”—is studded with rows of wooden dowels, where shafts have been coated with metallic pigment so as to resemble nails. Some of the dowel heads have been painted orange, forming a picture of other tree trunks when the orange “dots” are connected in the mind’s eye. Such liminal touches abound in these pictures. What the trees “stand for” is not important. That they have been executed through such painfully exacting means is what these works are about.

Ryan’s graphite-on-vellum drawings are elegant graphological exercises. The various studies (1984–86) for the Mulberry Tree #1 suite are precise miniatures of the plywood works. Two other drawings, both entitled Catalpa Branch #1,1986–87, describe their subject from different viewpoints. Ryan extends these larger drawings across several sheets of paper of various sizes, showing the bough as it divides and redivides into its component branches. Having established a subtly lyrical equivalence of elements between subject and work, Ryan then overstates the idea by enclosing each irregularly shaped composite within a shallow box out of which he has cut a form that follows the outlines of the drawing, needlessly reiterating its idiosyncratic shape. The attention these frames call to themselves only detracts from the exquisite labors invested in the drawings. Here Ryan’s compulsion to invest his work with the utmost possible evidence of effort gets in the way of the viewer’s attempt to read the significance of his images.

Buzz Spector