Sondheim Finalists 2015: Ryan Syrell's paintings and sculptures create bizarre and playful cartoony worlds, but struggle with being self-referential

Ryan Syrell’s work feels like set pieces for a stage production of a Dr. Seuss book or the Road Runner cartoon, or blown-up comic-book panels with all but the scenery removed. We often find ourselves exhausted by the growing neo-pop style of painting that seems too deeply entrenched in cartooning. But that makes it all the more exciting when we find painting that uses cartoon imagery in a new light and many of Syrell’s paintings do this. Others feel reductive and blandly self-referential.

‘Drywall (I)’ is a large painting that resembles the adjacent floor sculpture, ‘Rocks,’ which itself recalls Félix González-Torres’ famous “Untitled” heaps of brightly wrapped candies installed in gallery corners. We don’t recommend that you eat Syrell’s pink and gray rocks, stacked in a modest pile in a corner, however. ‘Drywall (I)’ looks like a scaled-up snapshot of pebbles lining the floor of a synthetic-blue aquarium. Together with ‘Rocks,’ the attempt at meta-ness does little to change our experience of each, and they are individually uninspiring.

However, Syrell’s cartooning becomes more playful in other pieces, which challenge the duality and artificiality of the space the imagery inhabits. The subject matter appears to exist within the artist’s studio, with paintings and other objects leaning, propped up, or hung on walls. Syrell takes moments from his work space and fashions them into obscure comic-book worlds or otherwise-synthetic environments, including highly stylized representations of foliage and rocks from nature.

In a painting-within-a-painting composition, ‘Rocks on Low Pedestal with Painting’ depicts a still life of motionless stones, sitting in puddlelike shadows below a framed image—or window—looking out on rocks falling in a banana-split-colored avalanche. Brighter in color and more energetic than the surrounding still life, the two sections of the painting alternate between appearing fake and real, even though both are rendered in flat shapes and a limited color palette.

‘Painting on Blocks (Vermont Ascent)’ feels like an interior landscape, in the sense that it looks like a Seuss-esque theater backdrop on a shiny black stage. Resting on squares of white, unpainted canvas, an image of pink, green, and white plantlike forms hovers over the black expanse. The landscape’s reflection in the floor is the most illusionistic moment in Syrell’s work, yet it feels just as just as surreal in its ambiguity.

Much like Magnolia Laurie’s wooden structures and paintings of those structures disassembled, Syrell both incorporates real building materials and represents them in his paintings. Several wooden two-by-fours punctuate ‘Overcast Lake (Oswego),’ a large vinyl painting on drywall that leans against the gallery wall, again, like parts of an unfinished theater set—both real as three-dimensional objects yet artificial as a representation of a rocky lakeside. In ‘Leaning Objects’ the planks appear to have been removed, leaving strips of bare white canvas (mirroring the white tree trunks in ‘Painting on Blocks’) in a vivid red expanse with sections of yellow wood-grain texture creeping over the edges. That we are presented with both the real planks in one painting and depictions of the planks in another creates a point of departure, grounding the work in real space. In these works, unlike in ‘Rocks’ and ‘Drywall (I),’ the visible absence left by masking, the painterly exploration of textures and reflections, and the image-within-an-image dualities create bizarre and playful yet vaguely familiar worlds.

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