Hiding in Plain Siteby Colin Edgington
Cordy Ryman: FREE FALL
TOWER 49 GALLERY | MAY 2017 – MAY 2018
Seen from the street, color breaks through the facade of an office building to mingle with the dynamism of the city. Sectioned lines of pinks, greens, whites, oranges, blues, and their pastel counterparts weave between the reflections of cars, pedestrians, foliage, buildings, and skylight. On the other side of the glittering glass, occupying an otherwise nondescript office building, is Tower 49 Gallery, the location of Cordy Ryman’s yearlong installation, FREE FALL. Initially, it may seem a strange place for Ryman’s sculptural-painterly hybrids. Tower 49, designed by starchitecture firm SOM (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP), is a blue-tinted glass building, forty-five stories tall and shaped like a skewed “H.” But therein lies the brilliance of Ryman’s works in this space: they contradictorily seek to both blend into and stand out from the building. By their very condition, the works break the austerity of the high-end interior with scraps, clasps, bright colors, and collage-like applications. The antipodal nature of the space and Ryman’s works form a deeper meaning in which each reflects its opposite. They reveal what is hidden in each other.
Curated by artist and writer Thomas Micchelli and organized by Ai Kato, FREE FALL consists of three site-specific installations—Root Vines, Lightning Vines, and Jupiter (all 2017)—as well as many of the smaller “scrap” works that Ryman is known for. Root Vines, which can be seen from the street, consists of thirty-two two-by-fours that cascade down the red marble walls. Some are painted in various colors, with their knots and markings left untouched, while others are kept in their natural wood tones. Each two-by-four is hinged at its ends and juts awkwardly from the wall. The works’ perceptual blending, which appears seamless from the street, is transposed inside, the roots outside the surface like ribs outside of skin.
In the lobby, a black granite desk is occupied by security guards—more veils of secrecy and authority. Above them is Ryman’s largest installation to date: Lightning Vines. Like Root Vines, these assemblages are made of scrap wood—two-by-twos in this case—strung together in jagged formations that begin at the upper corners and make their way haphazardly toward the center of the desk, like the carpet of an ’80s arcade mounted on the wall. From a distance, the works vaguely suggest lightning and, like Root Vines, barely resemble vines. Instead, they look more like neon tubing or plastic bendy straws. Lightning Vines is hung from the ceiling by cables and strung together with eye screws and quick links. The wood is notched, creating an inverted “L” along each strip. Ryman has painted these notches in, with colors that seem to vibrate against each other, lending to their illusory nature at a distance.
It’s clear from these works that Ryman wants his use of scrap materials and process of recycling to be seen and acknowledged, rather than hidden. Known for digging through scrap heaps and waste piles, the familiar paintings on the west lobby wall continue with his practice of gluing scraps of wood to panels and painting them. In Strange Fall (2017), for example, a forty-by-forty-inch acrylic and enamel painting, each piece of wood (separated by small gaps) is painted with various forms and layers as if it were its own piece, all of which come together in an uneven yet cohesively ordered arrangement. Lines connecting each unit recall the circuitry of a motherboard or an aerial view of the city. These scrap paintings, like those in the gallery on the twenty-fourth floor, are soft, colorful, and organic—a striking contrast to Jupiter on the red marble walls of the elevator bank.
It’s easy to overlook these paintings because they blend in to the wall. Painted by Justin Natividad, Jupiter was intended to help Ryman measure his works against the boldness of the marble on which they were made to hang. Instead, Ryman cut up the works and installed them on the wall they mimicked.1And yet, they aren’t entirely camouflaged. The marble’s reds are cooler, flatter, and denser, like dried blood, weighted by its muteness. The “Jupiter” paintings feel warmer, more alive, tinged with orange. Their color resembles the iron-rich rock of Utah called hematite after the Greek word “haîma” meaning “blood.” The whites in the marble are semi-transparent, while those of Jupiter are like opaque cream. Their edges, which imitate his Root Vines, are painted in bold, conspicuous colors, giving them depth from the wall. The title of the works refers to the surface of the planet Jupiter, the swirling red and white gases. Vortices famously called eyes repeat variably in the painting’s surfaces, as if an actual moving atmosphere.
These painting aren’t inconspicuous so much as they are speaking of inconspicuousness. Their overt camouflage reveals the daily camouflage of Tower 49 itself. The type of two-by-four used by Ryman are used to frame houses, and are never meant to be seen. They provide structure for livable spaces. Here, they mar the lobby’s smooth facade, and in their clunky prefabricated nature, point to its natural origins—both of marble as a material sourced through labor, and the luxury high-rise as a domicile. The works become magnets pulling the street into the cold fortress where falls, lightning, and vines simultaneously act as studs, straws, and snakes. These objects play themselves while playing at their references. Viewers are forced to acknowledge their surroundings, and to take note of the harmony inherent to antipodal things, hidden in plain sight.
- Thomas Micchelli, “Catalogue Essay: Thomas Micchelli on Cordy Ryman,” Two Coats of Paint, May 15, 2017. twocoatsofpaint.com.
Colin Edgington is a visual artist and writer currently living and working in the greater New York area. He holds a BAFA in studio art from the University of New Mexico, an MFA in studio art from the Mason Gross School of Arts, Rutgers University and an MFA in Art Criticism and Writing from the School of Visual Arts, NYC.