Ryan Schneider

Ryan Schneider Interview - By Steven Cox

Steven Cox: I would like to open up our interview by discussing the sense of spirituality and mysticism that you evoke through your recent paintings. I am sure I am not the only person who senses this, though I am interested to know to what extent do these subjects interest you both within and out of your studio?  

Ryan Schneider: You are definitely correct to pick up on spirituality in these new paintings. In the past two years I've experienced some dramatic shifts in my life, and as a result, in my work as well. It wasn't intentional, but painting has definitely taken on a spiritual role for me. Suddenly, things I once would scoff to paint began appearing in my work, quietly at first and then quite loudly. There are multiple reasons for this, but one of them is that about a year ago I began using a technique that was completely new to me, resulting in myself essentially abandoning the way I had been painting for years. This really saved me to be honest, I had sort of painted my self into a corner, but for some reason, utilizing this new technique really cracked me open.

Suddenly I was totally open to any kind of imagery that wanted to come forth.  I stopped using photo references and just painted what came from my head: memories, dreams, etc. Maybe I'll snap a photo of something with my phone and glance at that, but for the most part, the imagery now comes from somewhere interior, or a processed version of the exterior. At the same time, the subjects are still real, based in reality, and quite simple: a tree, a pitcher, a large bird or a mask. Subjects that are new to me, but not unfamiliar within the history of painting.

SC: Can you discuss your earlier work in relation to your newer process of working?

RS: My earlier work was all about me. My relationships and things I was going through. I was kind of working out my life in the paintings, which is fine, but it became less and less interesting. Those paintings were pretty tortured, because I was pretty tortured. I was always forcing, fighting, trying to wrestle a painting into submission. I needed therapy and validation from them.  Now, it feels like I'm an observer as a painting forms itself in front of me. They surprise me now. More often than not I don't know what I'm going to do until I start. 

A work might come from some careless doodling; something glanced out of the corner of my eye, or a real life experience. One recent painting, Great Blue Heron, 2013, (now on view at the Munkeruphus Museum in Denmark), came from an encounter I had upstate with a Blue Heron that had a stick hanging out of it's neck, and was obviously lost, wandering around in the woods, alone. I was able to get extremely close and observe this amazing bird, look right in to its eye and see it's incredible wingspan. I don't close my self off from the significance of experiences like that anymore.  I am open to whatever seemingly ridiculous thing that wants to come through. At this point, those ridiculous things seem to make the best paintings. 

SC: The techniques within your paintings bring to mind linocuts and wood cuts, whilst the finer drawn lines could be compared to etching. I am interested to know more about your processes, and how these techniques relate to your subject matter? Personally, they seem to reflect folk orientated printmaking. What are your thoughts on this?

RS: People tell me this a lot. Truthfully, I have never made a print of any kind that I can recall, though now I certainly plan to.  But the way I make these paintings is a pretty similar process to printmaking, from what I understand of it. They are essentially reductive.

In a nutshell, I start with washes of color, and then create negative space by painting in areas with multiple blacks, so that the under-painting essentially becomes the subject. Then I scrape into the black using various tools, very much like making a plate for an etching. Each painting is made with different variations of this process, reductive and additive. I don't have any set rules; this is something I stumbled into unintentionally. And to add to the answer for your first question, this process is what opened me up to the new imagery. The black paint is obviously indicative of night, and night is when we project things onto the world. It was like, once I had accepted that I was now painting the night, any subject was fair game. Night is open and reflective. It renders us vulnerable, and requires us to confront the unknown and invisible. So the subject of night has an inherent mysticism that existed way before I was here.

My older work contained a lot of very light colors, and now the most prominent color is black, which is the color that absorbs all light. But black has opened my work up immeasurably. And the paintings are somehow still very bright. 

SC: Paul Gauguin: Metamorphoses, took place at the MoMA earlier this year; I understand that this exhibition had a significant impact on you?

RS: The Gauguin: Metamorphoses, exhibition was a revelation for me. So strange and otherworldly. It's very cool to laugh at Gauguin on that tropical island, but if you do, you're really missing out.  The prints in that show looked like they were made on another planet, a million years ago. You don't see that as much in his paintings. The process of making the print is what makes these works so insane, because he would use the plate so many times and amazing things happened to the image.

That show has been a big influence upon my recent work. There's just something dark and deep and ancient there, some kind of unforced magic. It is unlike anything else I've ever seen. It allowed me to see that to take my work deeper, I had to be willing to go to those sorts of places within my self. Dark, uncomfortable, foreign places, in order to be satisfied. I realized the light and entertaining way out was not going to be fulfilling for me.

SC: Your most recent exhibition, Ritual For Letting Go at Two Rams Gallery in New York, featured a series of large-scale canvases that depicted owls and birds within trees, The Upper Branches, Too Many Birds, both 2014. What is the significance of these subjects and what initially inspired this series of works?

RS: Too Many Birds was the first painting I made on this subject of birds in trees. Initially, it was inspired by a jog on a really foggy day in Prospect Park, while the sun was going down. I noticed all of the trees were just these menacing black shapes in the fog, every single one. It was an incredible visual experience for me, and I knew that I had to paint it. Not that a tree is at all a new subject matter in painting, but I saw that instead of the tree being a black silhouette, it could be the negative space, some kind of glowing color with the rest of the painting being black. So once I was back in the studio, with the big green glowing tree on a canvas in front of me, the question became, ok, now what? I carved in one little bird and thought maybe that would be it, but then I found my self carving in many birds all over, very crudely, because drawing with a palette knife into wet paint is quite limiting, you have to keep it simple. Visually, it just worked for some reason. Conceptually, it seemed to sum up a lot of things that were running through me at the time. Trying to struggle through a feeling of scarcity and attempting to see the abundance in life. 

The Upper Branches was painted in a daze, sort of like I just woke up and there it was. The crux of that painting is the wash I did underneath. I used a lot of various blues and violets and it just started to glow from the inside. It felt like a healing painting. I titled it Upper Branches for the obvious reference of being in the upper branches of a tree, but also because (to me) the painting gives off a feeling of a kind of higher power or consciousness. The birds in my paintings are symbolic of many things, but I try to let it be open for the viewer to decide. Perhaps they are stand-ins for people. The owl is of course a symbol of wisdom, for seeing the unseen. An owl can see perfectly in the dark, which is why it's such a successful predator. It's a powerful and cruel bird, as well as a visually beautiful one. Another element here is that, while the viewer is looking at my painting, my painting is looking back at them, in the form of an owl, a bird, or at times even just a floating eye. Maybe this is a defense mechanism. Like my painting is saying, "You are staring at me right now trying to decide if I'm good, but I am looking right back at you, I can see you, too." There is a simultaneous need to be seen, as well as a rejection of it.

SC: There seems to have been a full departure from figuration in your more recent work, choosing instead to explore wildlife. At times, the animals even seem to act as stand-in’s for humans? Can you discuss this?

RS: I have definitely departed from the figure this past year. I really needed to. For a long time I leaned on the figure as a crutch, and my work began to suffer for it. Basically the first painting I intentionally made with the aforementioned reductive process is a painting called The Tiger has New Stripes, (2013). It's a fairly large painting, 60x72", and when I started it, I painted the entire canvas black with no color showing through at all. This was a pretty exhilarating moment, standing in front of this big canvas, entirely covered in wet, black paint. I wasn't prepared for it. I had no idea what I wanted to put on it, and that was a new feeling for me. I had intended to make a large vertical head. I had been doing some large head paintings before this. But something told me not to. The thought came to me, what about a jungle cat or something? Before I could think too much about it, I took my palette knife and carved this big, goofy, crude tiger into the black paint. It was so ridiculous, so obvious and so unsophisticated. I couldn't take it seriously. But I found something I had been looking for. Before, I always approached painting with absolute, unshakable intention. And now here was this stupid tiger that I hadn't intended to paint at all. I could tell it was a break through of some kind, so the title, The Tiger Has New Stripes, seemed appropriately boastful and honest.

Other animals just started coming to me. Every time I'd set out to paint a figure, it became an animal. Of course, these animals can be stand-ins for humans, perhaps visual illustrations of our base natures and desires. As in, Baboon is Your Perfect Teacher, a baboon is the closest relative to a human on Earth, but it isn't human. That's why it’s a great teacher. It's doesn't sit around thinking all day. It takes (at times, grotesque) action. Thinking too much is paralyzing for me, and I've learned that it doesn't help my painting. Following and trusting my instincts, like a baboon, helps my painting. Essentially what you'll hear in any basic meditation class is: be in your body. But it's extremely difficult; you really have to work at it. To make a good painting, I have to be blank. The self has to leave the room, so that the painting can get made. I think Guston said that.  

SC: Can you discuss some of your influences over the years and how they have had an impact upon your practice?

RS: My original art hero when I was 15 was Jackson Pollock. Though I still love his earlier work, I think I was attracted to his whole style more than his work. I desperately wanted to be a tortured painter dressed very cool. I started painting in oils at that time, switching from acrylics. I was also a singer in an Emo band. So a lot of my heroes were DIY punk musicians whose names I cannot remember now. But I would say my earliest painting influence would have to be de Kooning. I just sort of slapped the oil paint on as thick as I could and slopped it around. Drew into it with charcoal, scraped it, etc. That's really how I taught my self to paint: in my parent’s basement in Indianapolis, trying to make de Kooning paintings. George Baselitz and Basquiat were big influences on me then as well. I wanted to make important looking figurative paintings, even then. I fantasized about being a druggie walking around New York. Susan Rothenberg, Martin Kippenberger, Francesco Clemente - basically whatever books I could get for cheap at this bookstore in Indianapolis called Half Price Books. They were what I had access to, so they were my influences. Apart from Kippenberger, they aren't artists I look at much today.

Right now I have a great love for Gauguin, Leger, Picasso, Kirchner, Matisse, Rousseau, Marsden Hartley, and Picabia. These are artists that I'd say inform my daily painting life. As far as living artists go, I love Chris Ofili, Peter Doig, Tal R, Peter Linde Busk, Nicole Eisenman, Christoph Ruckhaberle, Katherine Bernhardt, John McAllister, and of course Dana Schutz, to name a small few. The list could go on and on, and is ever changing.  

SC: Can you tell me about your day-to-day routine?  What is a regular day in your studio?

RS: I try to get up early these days. I put on music as soon as I'm out of bed, then I sit around drinking coffee, talking with my future wife and messing with my cats. I go running in the mornings a lot too; it’s a meditative thing. Generally, I stop at Utrecht on Myrtle Avenue and pick up whatever supplies I need. Lately that’s an almost daily thing. Then I ride my bike to the studio, through a pretty nasty and traffic filled part of Bed Stuy and Bushwick. I try to pick up lunch and coffee so that I don't have to leave the studio too much during the day and interrupt my focus. When I get to the studio I put on music pretty much immediately. Silence bugs me when I'm there. I usually check emails on my phone and try to get a picture of what I want or need to do for the day. My phone is starting to be an unwelcome presence however. After I'm settled in, I sit and look at the paintings I have going and try to ascertain if they are working or not, and see what kind of relationships are developing between them.  I try to clear my mind of the things happening outside of the studio and just be there. It’s difficult. My brain is a circus. Lately I spend part of my day stretching and preparing canvases as well. It's tedious but rewarding.

Pretty quickly after all this I start painting. I try to sit and breathe for a bit to clear my self. I ask what ever wants to come through, to come through. I mix some colors and start working. I put in headphones and try to get lost. This usually goes on for a long time; it takes a lot for me to pull my self away from painting once I've started. It's basically a process of painting, sitting and looking, and repeating. I am usually focusing on only one work in a given day, but I'll have multiple paintings going. I'm usually there 7 or 8 hours, 5 days a week- give or take. Generally by 7 pm I am leaving to go eat dinner or go to an opening or something. Though I have to admit I have been majorly slacking on showing up at openings these days. I'm trying to fix that. It’s a pretty simple existence. I get out of New York as much as possible as well. Leaving here really helps inform my work. I have to bring fresh air back to the studio, or things start to stagnate and get repetitive and self-referential. 

SC: By the way you discuss your day-to-day routine, it seems you give more time to your own personal life, as opposed to living perhaps a socialite orientated NY lifestyle.  Would this be due to yourself becoming more settled within NY over the years, or perhaps due to a subconscious longing for an alternative surrounding?

RS: That's a good question. I've lived in NY for 12 years now. I was 22 when I moved here.  I lived in a room in Chinatown and drank in bars in the Lower East Side every night. Max Fish, The Hole, Lit, Sway.  Every night there was a different place to be, and I had the fortune of being around a lot of amazing creative forces of this city. I got to live a little glimpse of that life I grew up in Indiana fantasizing about. I also spent a little too much time at my drug dealer's apartment on Orchard Street, or in various dank bathrooms in those aforementioned bars. I was extremely present for that part of my life, but it really stopped working after a while. In the end, that lifestyle certainly didn't make me a better painter. I had to stop all of that in order to function and become a human being again. I don't drink or do drugs any more. I just couldn't make it work, and they eventually took me to ugly places I never thought I would go. So that can make going out a bit difficult at times, or just a little boring.

I like to go to tropical places, I like going to my friend's farm upstate, and I like going to LA; I go to these places a lot. But New York has been my home since the moment I set foot here. It just makes sense to me. The amazing thing about New York is that it can be whatever you want it to be - a place to party and be a socialite, or a place to get work done. I admire those who can be out every night and be happy and functional. I am just not one of them. I'd rather be painting, staring at my cats, or talking with my future-wife. 

SC: You recently curated an exhibition titled Not A Force But A Curvature.  What is the show exploring and what did you aim to highlight through this group show?  

RS: Lately I find myself thinking a lot about the universe and how it works. It is fucking mind-boggling. I was thinking a lot about gravity and how it basically keeps our planet from breaking apart or flying off into space. I read that Einstein theorized that gravity was not a force but due to the curvature of the Earth, or something like that. So when Steve (Rivera) from Novella Gallery asked me to curate something, I thought that the idea of gravity and other invisible forces in our universe would make a loose starting point.I also really wanted to highlight a few artists I love who are really just coming into their own at the moment.Gretchen Scherer in particular is an artist I grew up with who's work has really taken off into a beautiful direction this past year, and it happened to fit into the show. Melissa Brown is an artist I have always looked up to and she had two beautiful paintings about the sun rise and set. Claire Collette is a very skilled drafts-woman from San Francisco who makes these insanely meticulous graphite drawings that are quite cosmic. Mathew F Fisher, Ryan Kitson, and Gerasimos Floratos are the other three artists in the show, and I am just a really big fan of their work and wanted to see it all in dialogue.

SC: I am interested to know what you have planned for the remainder of 2014…

RS: Spending a lot time outdoors, and making a lot of new paintings. There are a few things with Two Rams that are still being finalized, and I am doing a two person show this Winter with Mathew F Fisher at Old Dominion University in Virginia. So far this year has been very busy and hopefully next year will be busier. I am ready and open for anything. 

Images courtesy of Ryan Schneider and Two Rams Gallery.

Ryan Schneider