Ryan Fenchel (b. 1981, United States) lives and works in Los Angeles, CA. He completed an MFA in Art Theory and Practice from Northwestern University in 2007. Past exhibitions include solo and group shows in Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Germany and Tokyo.
Ryan Fenchel’s drawings and paintings depict shapes that resemble vessels—jars, flasks, vases and pitchers. Executed in chalk pastel and oil, the cryptological images yield a purposefully awkward sense of space and balance. Driven by a confluence of tropes, including alchemy, secret societies, Cubism and Surrealism, and natural science, Fenchel connects and combines known forms and meanings in order to generate unfamiliar values and interpretations.
Interview with Ryan Fenchel
Questions by Katie Kirk
Hi Ryan! You went to graduate school in Chicago and then moved to Los Angeles. How did you like being an artist in these cities? Did the place change your practice at all? What has been the biggest difference in the two cities in regards to your art or the art communities?
I really loved the peer support in Chicago. The 'alternative gallery' scene there was exciting to me. There were many opportunities for artists to take risks with their work and put together shows, as well as an inviting space for artists to get to know one another. Mundane things like the weather and the landscape have been inspiring to me since relocating to Los Angeles, but within these mundane things there have been deeper surprises like the prehistoric vibe of the succulents or the intensity of the light in the mornings and evenings. There is also a mysterious and looming sense I feel sometimes here in LA, kinda noir-y, that sounds uncomfortable but I like.
You recently transitioned from working on paper to canvas. Can you tell me a little bit about your process and material choices?
Some of the decisions to move to canvas were practical. I didn't want to be tied to the size limits of paper. I also wanted to move to a medium that forced me to slow the process as well as own my mistakes. My previous drawing practice allowed me to erase in a more direct way; the way I use oils complicates the process of dealing with situations I’d otherwise try to erase and start over. I use oil sticks, so the application is still a drawing process, but the mark making matrix is quite different. I can be impatient and I wanted to introduce the slow drying time of the oil to my practice.
Do you tend to work intuitively or do you usually start with a plan?
My practice is intuitive and cumulative. There is a wide range of things I’m influenced by, but rather than making individual pieces about these various topics, I try to let them all stew together to create an aesthetic—a vibe. As I intuitively work through a piece, I let this vibe help me make decisions about the balance. I let my hands think during the making and use my mind to think about the work after.
I’m really interested in the way you use the vessel as both a way to play with formal elements, but also as a way to give a possible symbolic reading of the work. Can you expand on how this reoccurring subject relates to how you approach the work formally and conceptually?
When drawing the vessels, I get to explore shape, color, negative space, repetition, visual mapping, and other formal concepts that are the foundation of art making. The vessels act as shapes in this formal sense. Conceptually, the vessels act as placeholders for me to explore the various topics that influence my work.
Can you talk a little about your light boxes from your recent show at Carrie Secrist? They are so different materially than your other work, but seem to really compliment your paintings.
For the last 12 years I've taken yearly trips to Japan. I have always loved the square shaped bar signage that beautifully floods large and small cities alike. There are a series of pillars in Carrie's space that I thought would be interesting to activate if done right. I took the pillars as an opportunity to incorporate the Japanese bar signs, however, I was not interested in making an actual bar sign. I used the structure of the signs, but went about the imagery in the same way I would on canvas. It was a bit different using a computer program, of course, but intuitive and filled with mistakes nonetheless. It was a way for me to activate the paintings by using visual similarities between contrasting mediums, and physically activate the gallery—particularly at night—with light.
What do you want the viewer to walk away with after seeing your work?
A confused pleasure. I’d like them to walk away feeling drawn to the beauty of the image, but unsettled by the inability to pin down what is going on. I want a view to enter my work feeling as if they know what they are looking at - the vessel is a tool to draw people into the work - everyone has used a vessel, it’s a familiar object, it’s common in an Art context. But the longer the viewer sits with the piece, the straightforward reading is upended and the viewer is left with more questions than answers - Is this a still life? What kind of space am I looking at? What are these vessels for? When are they from? What is going on here? Focusing on the balance of visual pleasure/familiarity and conceptual openness, I want to create an artwork that can live and shift meaning over time.
What is the role of mystery in your work?
I find myself more satisfied by the investigation of a mystery than the solving of a puzzle. I want my work to create the chase rather than provide the answer.
What is your relationship to modernism?
It's complicated. While I trust in the scientific method of investigation, I also don’t believe it’s healthy (or even possible) to separate the world into categories.
Can you tell me a little bit about how you think of titles?
My titles are usually afterthoughts to the work. Rarely will I have a title for a work prior to the completion of the piece. I like to use titles as an esoteric key to describe my personal reading of the image. I like to keep the title esoteric because I'm not interested in pinning down how the work is read.
You received your MFA from Northwestern University in Art Theory & Practice in 2007. How did this shape your experience or approach to art?
A strong studio practice/work ethic is probably the most significant thing I took from school. The constant discussion and defense of work throughout graduate school also set a high standard for what I consider a completed piece.
Do you feel like it is necessary to get into a particular headspace when in the studio? If so how do you get there?
Not really, as long as I’m focused. I've made art relaxed or tense, happy or sad, slowly or rushed, sober or influenced. I don't find a hierarchy.
Who are some of the contemporary artists that you admire or enjoy looking at?
As for contemporary artists, I like to look at European graffiti and Kai Althoff's work. Odilon Redon and Picasso are artists that have a more foundational impact on my aesthetic.
Has there ever been a book/essay/poem/film/etc. that changed or influenced you?
"It will pass”. I'm interested in time on a large scale and this quote, as corny as it is, draws a lot of attention to scale. I think the actual quote was "This too will pass”. The longer I live the more I witness my ideas evolve; I watch things repeat; I watch immovable things crumble. I want my art pieces to exist over time and want their perception to change over time. I'm so excited about ancient objects because of the lapse in time between their creation and the modern readings of them. You can go to the Sphinx in Egypt and see it as a true and real object. But we don't know what the Sphinx is. We don't know why or how or who. We don't know what it originally looked like. We don't know how old it is. But it's a real thing. It's not a belief. It's a real thing that time has wrapped a cloak of mystery around it. Considering time and its passing is important to my studio process.
Thanks so much for sharing your work and talking with us!