GILES RYDER | SURFACE/MANDALAS FOR THE LOST
7 APRIL – 14 MAY
OPENING: THURSDAY 14 APRIL, 6-8pm
GILES RYDER: Still Painting Story Bridge
“They’re about desire, and make-up. And automobile design,” says Giles Ryder.
This may seem a rather flippant explication of the exhibited works. But like many of the artist’s pithy proposals, it is surprisingly revealing. Ryder’s linking of the abstract and timeless concept of desire with the tangible yet transient commodities that are cosmetics and cars points to some of the central, recurring concerns of his practice. For more than a decade, the artist has explored the tension between image and object, as well as simultaneous references to lofty ideals and lowly fashions, and an underlying interest in the (culturally, geographically, historically) contingent nature of meaning in non-representational artefacts.
Ryder’s latest works continue and extend these ongoing investigations in light and colour. The exhibition is comprised of three bodies of work, each formally distinct yet conceptually linked.
The smallest group of works, boasting titles like “Duo-stucco-meister” (2015), balances a posture of throwaway playfulness with the pretence of jewel-like preciousness. That is, these works are neither entirely serious nor merely silly, and it seems to be part of the point that it’s hard to know what to make of them. The seven diminutive and nearly rectangular canvases, each around 30 centimetres high, bristle with an implausibly thick impasto: Ryder refers to them as “light like bubble gum,” referring not only to the surface texture but also to their jarring clash of colours, which seem to be derived from computers rather than pigments. Most are framed in immaculately manufactured boxes lined with a matte gold finish, the classical elegance of which serves to emphasize, through contrast, the unruly form and hue of the canvases. (The frames are just one of several “custom-made” elements Ryder employs, a point we will return to soon.)
This first body of works continues from an earlier series of heavily impasto paintings Ryder completed several years ago. In those earlier works, the front surface was cloaked in a final coat of monochrome, usually black; only the side edges revealed the riotous and seemingly random colours beneath. In these new works, as in that earlier series, the box-frames draw our attention to the edge surfaces of the canvas. Yet with the mess of lurid purples, putrid greens, and gloopy pinks now bursting forth from the front of each painting, we feel we don’t know where to look. Ryder’s decision to hang several of these works in unexpected positions, high above the staircase in the Chiang Mai gallery, heightens this sense of perceptual confusion. That something so archaic as a painting and so analogue as impasto oil paint can invoke a feeling of unfocused inattention akin to digital eyestrain is a surprising—and perverse—triumph.
Un-stretched canvases up to four metres in length, as well as several more human-scaled works that are stretched but remain unframed, together comprise the second body of works on show. In contrast to the smaller “bubble gum” paintings, the surfaces of these larger pieces is entirely flat, interrupted only by the occasional fleck in the paint—perhaps traces of insects drawn to the fluorescent lights in the open-air studio where all the exhibited paintings were made. Whereas the smaller works are oil, these larger canvases are painted in acrylic, with synthetic glitters and professional automobile media occasionally added. Aside from this, the works share a composition based around the form of a grid.
The grid is, of course, a topic of endless fascination for artists as well as critics and historians of art. Ryder is well versed in these discourses. He is not uninterested in the legacy of such Euramerican figures as Piet Mondrian, Frank Stella and Agnes Martin (and their Asian interlocutors such as Liu Wei and Sopheap Pich, with the latter’s works having been exhibited at H Gallery and seen by Ryder). But for Ryder, such art history is but a point of departure, into a broader romp through what he calls the “lived experience of colour in daily life.” Meanings shift across space and time. These paintings offer a pointed yet playful reminder that the balancing of angles and straight lines in varying widths and hues—that is, the use of grids—is not a concern exclusive to artists. It is also a pervasive motif in industrial and applied design, especially in fashion textiles. The lattice-like composition of many of these larger paintings recalls ancient Scottish tartans (and indeed the artist spent almost a year living in Edinburgh during his studies) as well as hand-woven Southeast Asian silks. Most strikingly, the flat surfaces, imprecise lines and garish colours vividly evoke inexpensively manufactured digital print knock-offs of luxury fashion brands like Burberry. The sense of desirable fakery is intensified by a milky sheen in some sections, which resembles at once a high-end pearlescent effect, and a cheap glue.
Ryder paints these works in slow and methodical layers, but is careful to clarify that “the system gets stuffed up” and “the grid dissolves.” The resulting interruptions to lines and blocks of colour appear like digital glitches in prints. This is, the artist quips, “material and materialism; glitter and the dysfunction of desires.” Acid yellow, green and pink stripes seem to float hoveringly over dark-hued matte under-layers. The painterly illusion of depth is perhaps a joke on mid-century US formalism’s attempt to denude the medium of this attribute. Yet the high-keyed contrast is also uncannily alike to mass-produced fashion fabrics available in any market or mall in Bangkok. Visible pencil lines and bleeds of paint linger as traces of the artist’s hand, yet also resemble glitches in fashion fabrics that have been cheaply printed rather than carefully woven. In some works, seepages of stained colour that were at first unintended have later been carefully mimicked by the artist, using a combination of brush and roller techniques.
This kind of meticulously handcrafted imperfection contrasts elegantly with the imprecision of the handcrafted LED light pieces on show: the third body of work, which we will turn to shortly. The visual and spatial uncertainties in Ryder’s works, as part of a larger strategy of perceptual muddling, resonates with the approach of many Thai artists in recent years. Unwilling or unable to address the current and ongoing political uncertainty and sense of crisis in Thailand, many artists instead employ coded visual signs, steeped in a relentless ambiguity. In “Butterfly Hunting,” one of the mid-sized paintings showing in Bangkok, dark spots of spattered paint are visible through several semi-transparent layers. Ryder explains that the paint was originally dropped accidentally, by a visitor to the studio. Intrigued by the curious Rorschach-like effect, the artist intentionally repeated this spattering of pigment. The incorporation of found marks and chance effects brings to mind Ryder’s past use of a found house painter’s drop-cloth as the support for a painted work, “A Painters Ritual – I Wish” of 2012.
Chance and the (at times unwitting) collaboration of others is a recurring source of meaning and pleasure in Ryder’s practice, evident throughout the works presently exhibited, and especially so in the third body of work: the LED light pieces, dated 2014 and 2015. Circular in shape and decorated with target-like concentric rings digitally printed to Ryder’s specifications, these works were sourced almost-readymade: they are customized-to-order from a commercial workshop in Phnom Penh, and thus their makers are integral to the artist’s presentation. Since relocating to Bangkok in 2012, Ryder has visited the nearby Cambodian capital several times. Although Khmer religious ornamentation is generally more subdued than its often glitter-enhanced and mirror-encrusted Thai counterpart, Ryder discovered in Phnom Penh a trend for circular LED lights which pulse with pre-programmed patterns derived from mandalas, as well as lotus flowers, images of the Buddha, and other abstract motifs. These electronic mandalas are sometimes found decorating the interior of pagodas, as well as shrines in private homes and businesses in Cambodia; they are rarely if ever found in Thailand. Ryder is fascinated by traces of the hand-crafting process in these devices; although they are produced in large numbers, there is minimal mechanization and each seemingly identical unit is, on closer inspection, unique. This reliance on laborious manual processes rather than technologized mass production relates, of course, to low wages and other economic conditions in contemporary Cambodia; but it also intersects with an often-overlooked history of colonially imposed expertise in the hand-made. Ryder takes pleasure in his dealings with the skilled artisans in the Phnom Penh workshop, just as he does in installing the light works in close proximity to paintings from the other two bodies of work. Light from the pulsating coloured bulbs—softened by a screen of translucent plastic subsequently added by custom order in Bangkok—leaks inescapably onto the canvases nearby.
One revealing precursor to these LED light works is a 2011 installation titled “Light Pavillion,” created while the artist was undertaking a residency in Seoul. Fluorescent tubes and other light sources are the main component in this work; students at Korea’s National Studio were invited by Ryder to select the spatial and sequential arrangement of these tubes. The light emitted was softened by the hanging of a curtain (just as in the new works, a plastic screen diffuses the LED light); this simplest of technologies has a surprisingly striking effect in creating a sense of spatial confusion within the work. Writing of Ryder’s earlier neon light works, art historian Carolyn Barnes has suggested that the artist’s practice “revolves around visual and phenomenological experience…celebrat[ing] perception and sensation as vital dimensions of art.” Light melts from Ryder’s works, seeping into H Gallery’s two spaces, operating in tandem with the parallel lines in the large paintings which also echo each gallery’s distinctive architecture.
This specificity to the space of exhibition is a fitting point to conclude. But not without first noting some salient moments from the artist’s biography. The son of an artist and a teacher, Ryder studied art in Brisbane, Sydney, Edinburgh and Berlin. In Edinburgh, aside from tartan, he was moved by the palpable class distinctions, and the pedagogical emphasis on technique, including extensive drawing from life: “in Australia, it was concept first, technique last. But you need both,” he says. In Berlin, he was impressed by the possibilities of linking political concerns with abstraction. This interest is shared by the eminent Thai artist Mit Jai Inn, who also studied in Germany, and in whose studio all of the presently exhibited paintings were made. Mit and Ryder have been friends since 2011, and many viewers may discern a conversation between the artists in recent bodies of work. Based in Chiang Mai for five decades, Mit’s studio sprawls across its out-of-the-way block of land; sheltered by a simple tin roof, its walls are open to the elements.
But Ryder is no stranger to open-air painting. Before enrolling in art school, he spent almost six years painting Brisbane’s landmark Story Bridge, as part of a team of minimally paid civic employees. It takes a full-time team fifteen years to complete the job; and at that point, of course, it’s time simply to start all over again. Several writers have remarked on this colourful chapter in Ryder’s history, one noting the “intense physicality” of the work, another linking this occupation to the artist’s “knowledge of the effects of paint on metal.” For me, it’s the ongoing nature of the work of painting Story Bridge, its lengthy duration, that is important. Baked under the sub-tropical Brisbane sun for hours on end, it becomes hard to know what you’re seeing. And, of course, there’s the fact that this work cannot be done alone.
Giles Ryder is an artist energized by ambiguity, shifts and blurs in perception and meaning, and by the participation of others, in various forms. Although now living in Bangkok, painting in Chiang Mai, and commissioning light works in Phnom Penh, perhaps he is, after all, still painting Story Bridge.
– Roger Nelson, Phnom Penh, 2015
Giles Ryder is based between Thailand and Australia. A graduate of Griffith University in Brisbane, he also undertook Postgraduate studies at Sydney College of Art and Kunsthochschule Berlin, with funding from Anne & Gordon Samstag International Visual Arts Scholarship. Ryder is a recipient of the ARTAND Australia/Credit Suisse Private Banking Contemporary Art Award in 2006 and was an Asian Pacific Artist Fellow at Korea’s National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in 2011. Selected solo exhibitions include Black Magic (2012), Blockprojects, Melbourne; Artereal Gallery (2011), Sydney; The New Nouveaux Nullism (2010), Ryan Renshaw Gallery, Brisbane; Life without Rituals (2010), Blockprojects, Melbourne; and Vectorize (2009), Raum Weiss, Berlin. Selected group exhibitions include Be Abstract (2014), Kunstverein Schwabisch Hall & Ballhaus Ost, Berlin; Less is More (2012), Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne; Conflicts of Interest II (2012), H Gallery, Bangkok; and the Korean International Art Fair (2011). Public collections include Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne; Artbank, Sydney; and Griffith Artworks, Brisbane. Ryder’s works are included in private collections in Austria, Dusseldorf, Berlin, Munich, Leiden, Netherlands, Edinburgh, London, Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. He teaches at Bangkok University International and has also taught at Sydney College of Art/The University of Sydney and King Mongkut’s University of Technology Ladkrabaeng in Thailand.