The New Contemporary Art Magazine

Ryan Matthew Cohn and Jean Labourdette explore the Wunderkammer in “Mors Et Anima”

The concept of the Wunderkammer, aka The Cabinet Of Curiosities has been an artistic inspiration for some time, however a new show opening in November by Ryan Matthew Cohn and Jean Labourdette takes it up a notch with an exceptional show of sculptures and paintings based thematically on the subject.

Wunderkammers arose originally in the 16th century amongst the intellectually curious elite, who built rooms devoted to collections of objects gleaned from other cultures and the ethno-botanically wondrous. These collections served as the precursor to the concept of the Natural History museum… treasure troves meant to install creative wonder as well as scientific learning and examination. Contemporary wunderkammers often include historical oddities and can lean towards the macabre with collections of bones, taxidermy, and religious artifacts. 

Ryan Matthew Cohn is widely known in Antique, Collector, and Oddities circles around the globe. Acclaimed for his stint as an expert on the Sci Fi channel TV show “Oddities”, his breathtaking personal collection, and the hugely popular and influential traveling “Oddities Flea Market” he started with his with Regina Marie Cohn, Cohn has a cult following for his sculptural work, in particular his articulated skull pieces. For this show, Ryan has stretched his oeuvre to create five haunting sculptures created with human skulls and very rare antique reliquary pieces.

Montreal based artist Jean Labourdette emerged from the graffiti (Known as Turf One) and tattoo worlds, but is mostly lauded for his hyper-realistically rendered works of poetically odd characters, meticulously painted skulls and birds, and loving and sympathetic portraits of dogs, often ensconced in reliquary inspired frames- adding a dimension of reverence and appreciation for things we often pass by in the mundane world.

Hi-Fructose took a moment to chat with the artists about working together in different mediums to create a shared vision for their upcoming show “Mors Et Anima”.

Your work is obviously influenced by the concept of the wunderkammer- the cabinet of curiosities. Can you each speak to what initially sparked your interest in such a subject and how it influences your work?

Ryan: I have had a great attraction for Wunderkammer, since I was very young. I grew up surrounded by nature, which I ended up collecting and then utilizing in my early artworks. As an adolescent my interest in antiques started to blossom. These influences ended up becoming my main passion, and ultimately grew into the artworks that I make today. I also heavily collect items pertaining to the theme.

My collection ended up, becoming synonymous with the subject. My home has become somewhat of my lifelong masterpiece of Wunderkammer objects. Each piece working with one another to form a cohesive compilation. 

Jean: like Ryan, I was collecting all sorts of things as a child… rocks, weird sticks, dead bats, anything that spiked my curiosity and sense of wonder. One of my favorite places to go as a child was the Paris Natural History Museum…I grew up going to the flea market every weekend with my dad, which ended up being a defining factor in my life. I knew all the merchants, it was a lot of fun… I even bought a Kanglin (Tibetan human bone trumpet) at age 6!

I also had a fascination for carnival sideshows, which we still had in Paris at the time at La Foire Du Trône… I would feel amazed looking at the Fiji mermaid, the two headed lamb, the headless woman, or smallest man alive! Actually, often more at the promise of these oddities, which was depicted on amazing painted banners in bright colors, than at the often disappointing reality behind the curtains. To me wunderkammers and sideshows are an ode to human imagination.

At of the age of twelve I also got into the emerging graffiti scene in Paris (where I’m from) and would collect found objects in abandoned buildings, the oddest the better, that I would later paint on, letting myself be inspired by their patina, their decay, their soul and untold stories waiting to be channeled.

These fascinations eventually merged together and evolved as of the early 2000’s into a modest collection of oddities and strange objects which i use as inspiration for my paintings, as well as the use of antiques and found objects in my work.

Your work also either skirts or outright references the macabre. Without shying away from the grotesque, it also addresses great beauty in the concept of death and regeneration. Can you each speak to that idea a bit?

Ryan: Some of my earliest memories seem to pertain to death in one form or another. Whether it be the pieces that I collect or the books that I am attracted to, they tend to deal with death, anatomy or memento mori. When I started taking trips to Europe I would visit some of the ancient cathedrals and places of worship. I would come across reliquaries of deceased saints. These reliquaries would hold actual bones of the Saints, and in some case actual Skulls, though they were sort of masked with beautiful iconography and jewels of memorialization. One of my fondest memories was when I visited Notre Dame before it ultimately burnt down, I stared closely at the carvings that adorned the walls. Many of them were incredibly grotesque. And yet I noticed tourists, fawning at the great beauty that surrounded them perhaps not noticing the grisly  images of people being beheaded or tortured. 

Some of my earliest memories seem to pertain to death in one form or another.-Ryan Matthew Cohn

Jean: As I mentioned, during my graffiti years, I spent a lot of time exploring abandoned urban spaces of all kinds, from the forbidden Parisian  catacombs to abandoned houses or factories. I was really inspired by the decay and the “ghosts” held within these spaces and would create art on site based on these perceptions specific to each space…

Even though I’m not a religious person, I developed a fascination for religious art and churches when I was around 20. Living in Paris at the time I had great access to that sort of stuff, which is omnipresent there. This influenced my work a lot.

 To me it’s all about having “second degré”, a sense of humor about the whole thing. There’s no light without darkness, and vice versa.  No life without death. I love the idea of approaching these fundamental notions with a grain of salt, almost mocking in a way the existential dread inherent to the human condition. I paint the tragicomedy of human existence, in all its pathetic yet wonderful glory. I question the notion of death as a final irrevocable state of nothingness. I look for glimmers of the soul.

I see my art as a serious attempt at touching the “sacred” mystery of life yet totally irreverent and iconoclastic at the same time.

Although Jean is predominately a painter and Ryan works sculpturally, your work shares a lot of common elements as far as subject matter and technical craftsmanship. What was it about each others work that prompted you to co-create a show?

Ryan: I have been a great admirer of Jean’s work for many years and I love that he paints a large majority of the things that I collect and am attracted to. His paintings really are a visual of all the things that I love. So naturally, when we decided to collaborate it was, a smooth transition and an appropriate marriage of styles. 

Jean: I mean, Ryan’s work embodies everything that made me dream and marvel since I was a child! His works and his collection are an endless source of inspiration to me.

I love the idea that we will be juxtaposing legit sculptural oddities with paintings in the Vanitas spirit!  I feel like it allows for a very interesting dialogue between the pieces, as well as a complex and wide exploration of the memento mori theme both through the difference of medium and through of our personal points of view on it, which are different yet complementary. Creating this fantastical wunderkammer of a  show with a Ryan is something very unique, enriching and profoundly inspiring on a personal level!

Ryan- you are internationally famous as a collector and expert on antiques, particularly in the oddities realm. What prompted your to turn found objects and turn them into sculptural art works? Do you ever have apprehension about working with unusual and valuable objects and repurposing the intention of them, or do you not see it that way?

Ryan: I spent many years of my career restoring antiques and still do today. In many cases I would get broken works simply to study how they were made up and what their internal structure consisted of. This really gave me an opportunity to examine the inner workings of many different mediums and genres. At some point, I became comfortable matching different mediums together. Having the skills to work with metals, as well as my talents in the restorative art, helped me to take on more extensive and tedious projects. Working with taxidermy and osteological specimens for so many years has truly given me an understanding of the anatomy of most of the material I work with. That could be an actual skeleton or a skeleton clock. 

As I’ve aged, my exploration shifted from processing grief and loss of loved ones to confronting also more directly the notion of my own mortality.

-Jean Labourdette

Jean, your work has always had a element of bringing the scared to the mundane, and this show is a continuation of that theme. What prompted you to start creating “paintings as reliquaries” of sorts?

Jean: Vanitas or Memento Mori- themed paintings are works that I originally started creating I think in order to process and “understand” the notion of death after the passing of my parents at a relatively young age. 

Later on, after my dogs died, I naturally created my first “actual” reliquaries in order to honor and remember this bond of love that we shared, with an intention of immortalizing it and of creating a tangible connection with them wherever they were, a sort of portal between realms…

As I’ve aged, my exploration shifted from processing grief and loss of loved ones to confronting also more directly the notion of my own mortality. This is a theme present in pieces such as “pre-humous reliquary”.

Did the fact that you both decided to work on similar themes together as part of the show cause you to be inspired and work towards a new or specific theme in the work for the show? Or do you consider it a natural progression of what you do anyway, and your shared interests just create symbiotic themes naturally? For example,  were you inspired by the other artist was doing?

Ryan: I have become known predominantly for my osteological artworks that I’ve done throughout the years. You can cut a skull vertically. You can cut a skull horizontally. You can explode a skull. And you can articulate a skull, disarticulate, you get the picture. I wanted to play with the idea of osteological art but mix it with the theme of Wunderkammer. I chose to gravitate towards religious iconography as an inspiration. For instance, using an antique reliquary hand, but instead of putting the bones of a saint inside I chose to use natural history specimens like bugs and butterflies, etc.. this is indeed still a memorial of sorts but praising the nature that we are surrounded with. When I go to a museum sometimes when I look at a sculpture, I’ll ask myself what’s inside of that bust of a head? Would it be cool if there was actually a skull? 

Jean: As I mentioned before, I am a big fan of Ryan’s work and collection. Considering how influential oddities have been in my life, showing with Ryan motivated me to dive deeper into this theme during the months it took to create the series for this show. We each did our own thing for the show, without trying to adapt too much to each other’s ideas , which I think allowed us to each do what we do without any compromises and to come up with our best work. At the same time, our works are so complementary in many ways, I knew there was no way they would look off once put together. It was always obvious to me that the synergy between the pieces  would obviously happen on its own, and I was very excited to let this magic part of the process happen freely… When you work with people who are so good at what they do like Ryan is, you just know 1000% that the work will be mind blowing…

Ryan Matthew Cohn and Jean Labourdette open their two-person show “Mors Et Anima” at Roq La Rue Gallery in Seattle on Saturday Nov 4th – 25th. 

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