Get in close to Kathleen Ryan’s new body of work and gleaming topographies unfold. At that range, they’re cityscapes, or cells, or circuit boards. What seemed at first organic – fruit, for the most part, swamped by mould – turns, to a patient eye, industrial. And the industrial, embodied in the rusted, busted objects she drags into the studio, seems in turn revitalised through Ryan’s slow acts of making. That motor, for instance, once the heart of a machine, beats again in its new host body, a fat red peach. Its energy ripples across the fruit’s densely beaded, intensely detailed surface. Icons of American speed, now stilled and scarred, come to weird new life through Ryan’s concentrated practice. Car hoods yawn clam-like, their interiors buffed to a glisten; their insides are wet like mouths. Every tiny bead or precious stone in every sculpture is chosen and placed to gradually build up a cobbled skin, where greens gently fade into greys and oranges bloom into purples. Life, in other words, erupts.
Friction between the slow and the fast animates Ryan’s new sculptures. The slowness and precision in her process obliges us as viewers to take our time, even as the objects we see seem caught in the act of slipping away: a spider-web, jewelled with dew, that you might sweep away with one hand; a rotting strawberry, en route to mush. These transitory moments in the life of matter, and how art’s practices might hold it still, are active in Ryan’s work, even if they don’t lead quite where you’d expect. All things must pass, you might sigh to yourself, then catch yourself in the corniness of the thought. If Ryan’s sculptures throw up the age-old artistic subject of the shortness of life, then actually throwing up might be an appropriate response. After all, who needs a painting of some rotting fruit – let alone a huge sculpture of one – to remind them that life is short? Doesn’t life itself do that, in a thousand different ways, all the time?
In any case, Ryan’s peculiar iconography of excess always plays against reductive readings. See how those crystalline spider-webs, stretching across the gaping shells of the car hoods, glimmer like a Vegas chandelier. How the strawberry’s mould is also like a hard casing of chocolate in your Valentine’s nightmare. It’s that too-muchness, that headiness, that mitigates against reading Ryan’s works as straightforward allegories. They are always more than they appear, and they just keep on saying more, showing more, the closer you get, and the slower you go. Everything here is glistening with life, rocking and teetering on the edge of kitsch. It’s Disney gothic; curdled aphrodisiac.
- Ben Street, May 2022