Poet William Carlos Williams once said that “[o]ne has to learn what the meaning of the local is, for universal purposes.” During a time when American writers and artists were expatriating themselves to Europe, Williams chose to stay in his hometown and depict American themes, in an American idiom.
I kept thinking of Williams as I looked at Ryan McLennan‘s work. In it, he chooses to depict that which he knows best—the wildlife of North America. Inspired by time spent in the Blue Ridge Mountains and other parks near his native Virginia, McLennan calls upon the tradition of naturalist painters to raise issues of evolution, displacement and habitat destruction. And through a focus on the intensely local and intimately familiar, McLennan is able to touch on the universal.
The grand prize winner of last year’s West Prize, the young artist’s career is taking off. We recently caught up with him to discuss this all. (And as it turns out, he’s not much of a fan on poetry.) Hi-Fructose correspondent Lauren Quinn reports-
Your work is firmly rooted in place, in the North American wildlife. And yet these animals always appear in blankness, amidst whiteness. Can you talk a little about the role of place, or anti-place, in your work?
I prefer the viewer not to associate themselves with a familiar time or place. Sometimes the animals interacting would not be found in the same location. The trees and rocks are my idea of trees and rocks, so they cannot signify place either. A parallel universe.
You’ve said that you choose to only depict animals that you feel like you know, that you can observe in the wild. How often do you get out into nature or parks, and how much is that observing a part of your process?
Getting outside used to be a much higher priority for me. I still really enjoy it, but it is less available to me since moving to New York. In Richmond, I could ride my bike down the street and be in a “wild” enough place to observe a variety of animals. I know this is available to me in New York, I just need to make an extra effort. Considering process, its great for getting some thinking done. I don’t need to see anything, just be comfortable and focus.
You’ve lived and worked in pretty much the same area for most of your life, and your work has grown out of a deep interaction with that place. Do you have the desire to travel to new locations and study other wildlife? Or do you feel committed to depicting that which you know best? TS Eliot or William Carlos Williams? (Okay, the last bit is a nerdy literary reference, you don’t have to answer that.)
Much of what I do comes from where I grew up and stretches across all of North America. I do have the desire to travel to new places, but considering the way i work, this would require a lot of research. That is not a bad thing at all, but there is still plenty for me to learn and be inspired by around here. I’m not much of a poetry fan. I’ve had Williams’ Imaginations on my shelf for a while now, maybe I’ll take that for the flight to Denver. Can I say Borges? Maybe I didn’t get the reference..
What do you most hope to communicate in your work?
People always have their own interpretations, which I enjoy hearing. These most recent paintings question what makes a life worth living. What is valued when you have basically nothing and what is feared in death to struggle so hard to survive?
2010 was a pretty exciting year for you, especially with winning the West Prize. What’s on the horizon for 2011?
Focusing on my next show with Joshua Liner Gallery alongside Chloe Early. This will be in October and I’m really looking forward to it. Other than that I hope to make some trips out west. I want to go to Wyoming and Montana, California too.
Music has been another important facet of artistic expression for you. Are you playing in any bands currently? Any chance of the Ryan McLennan Act on the road one of these days?
No more music. I won’t say never again, but over the years I have lost interest. I like to play with friends in a laid back situation, but nothing serious.