BETTY CUNNINGHAM GALLERY | SEPTEMBER 16 – OCTOBER 30, 2010
Immanuel Kant was no daredevil, yet he knew, long before Evel Knievel rode his first bike, exactly why the madcap stuntman would be such an attraction. Knievel created an experience of the sublime. He fully embodied what Kant called “the sacred thrill,” which in terms of aesthetics induces delight by means of a measured terror. The closer Knievell came to death the louder his fans cheered. Ryan Humphrey knows the formula and he utilizes it with tremendous force in a new installation bounding with life and no little death rattle.
Look for the dream that keeps coming back, the inaugural show at Kunsthalle Galapagos, is a BMX park complete with a half pipe, a speed bump, and a vert wall. Skid marks on the ramps and wooden floor evince the art park’s functionality, evoking the presence of the riders and the pounding clamor of their sport. But the riders are gone, like ghosts departed from a possessed body, and, except for a little music playing out of an open coffin, the installation is silent in the eerie way of abandoned public places.
Music is a major element in Humphrey’s installation, one he uses to play absence and presence off one another. Two of the four walls are decked out in an argyle design with a variety of worn cassette tapes hung on nails in neat rows. There are cardboard boomboxes on the floor and a miniature Van Halen guitar on a table. Musically, each of these components is obsolete. Humphrey doesn’t force them to perform their old function—the music playing out of the coffin is from a discman—rather he reinvigorates them as purely aesthetic objects, stimulating the eye instead of the ear.
And yet the inverse is true too: many visual components of the installation invoke a musical presence. The half-pipe and the base of the vert ramp both bear phrases alluding to aural activities. The vert ramp reads, “one ear to the ground,” the half-pipe, “Listening to the Dead.” Additionally, the title of the exhibition is a lyric from the song “Land of Sunshine” by the American rock band Faith No More. The song posits a forward-looking approach to life, which in this context could be read either as counteracting the force of the dead who inhabit the past or as ultimately fatalistic, in the sense that death inevitably awaits us all.
Humphrey carries on the theme of rejuvenation in two somewhat morbid pieces. In a subtle homage to Brancusi’s “Endless Column,” Humphrey stacks five empty kegs of beer atop each other. Then, pushing the work into a different dimension, he paints one side with scary looking tribal figures. In “Chandeliers,” which hang on chains from the vaulted ceiling, Humphrey paints car rims black and wires them with colored lights and a disco ball. Despite the pulsing neon light, the chandeliers have an unmistakable gothic feel that gives them a dual character.
Humphrey grew up as a BMX rider in Ohio and has a history of bringing that world into the realm of contemporary art. In 2009, he installed a much grander BMX park in the Queens Museum of Art. In both cases riders hit the ramps, infusing the work with something uncommon in contemporary art: raw adrenaline, that infectious chemical that makes a crowd go wild. Yet when the riders and their audience have gone, a trace of that energy lingers, if only through the scuffs and scrapes they’ve left behind. Their physical absence enables a ghostly presence; and that ghostliness, which carries within it an element of natural terror, is what can make a visitor feel so alive and alone.