Ryan Pierce, Art Papers
Ryan Pierce at Elizabeth Leach Gallery, Portland, OR
Originally published in Art Papers

For all the hysteria over shrinking shorelines, surging temperatures, and depleted resources, Portland, Oregon-based painter Ryan Pierce's latest body of work suggests that mankind might be overestimating its own staying power. Throughout the post-apocalyptic wastelands of Written from Exile [Elizabeth Leach Gallery; October 1—31 2009], flora and fauna flourish, while humanity does the vanishing. Despite such desolation, these sumptuously painted canvases are littered with the remnants of civilization: a rusted-out ice machine, a shored motorboat revamped as makeshift desert shelter, an opulent vacation home that has become an indoor grazing pasture for a pair of deer. And yet hints abound that the human species has not entirely lapsed into extinction. After all, within the logic of these fictional tableaux, there must be at least one person left standing to have captured these scenes. But that presence is intuited and never shown, banished from the pictorial space.

Here, the painter is a figure of necessary exclusion, exiled—so to speak—from the world he depicts, whether observed or imagined. Pierce amplifies that isolation by alluding to a tradition of self-taught, outsider artists, specifically the pastoral scenes of Croatian painters Ivan Lackovic Croata and Ivan Vecenaj. He adopts a graphic approach, in which painterly depth commingles with flattened stretches of decorative pattern. In "Blue Rooster," the ground beneath the titular subject is a lattice of curved, ornamental forms; the rocks and stands of jutting prairie grass that sketch out its surface seem to exist on another plane altogether. Likewise, the meticulous detail of "Comet," which presents a patch of moony, blue-white pumpkins on the edge of a winding stream, is complicated by willfully un-technical touches. The thick black edging that traces enormous fronds pops loudly, while featureless, anemone-green ferns scan as sections of raw canvas in the midst of an otherwise painstakingly worked surface. In "Maricopa," the stalks and leaves of purple flowers that shoot up from the cracks in an asphalt parking lot are jarringly flat: silhouetted starbursts of green that undo the painting's realistic dimensions. This push-pull tension in perspective sabotages these sites as real places; their spatial inconsistencies out them as the unstable terrain of possible outcome, fueled by dreadful anticipation.

As Pierce invokes the figure of the outsider—in both form and content—he asserts that humanity is the ultimate interloper, too new and estranged from the natural world to pose any legitimate threat of ecological annihilation. While environmental activists decry mankind as an invasive species, hell-bent on its own primacy, such an appraisal fails to appreciate the chaotic and indefatigable thrust of Nature. If the natural world mirrors man's impulse to colonize and conquer, it also lacks the capacity for compassion, the ability to acknowledge boundaries. In the stunning and densely composed "Easter Island," Pierce crams the canvas with the instruments of violence and torture encountered by the protagonist of Jerzy Kosinski's novel The Painted Bird as he wanders through war-ravaged Europe. These relics—an electric chair, a skull suspended in a bird cage—are lodged in arid earth, rendered benign in the absence of either captive or captor, as the hearty leaves of a bush extend, sun-like, in every direction. In a nearby sculpture, a wooden fence post grows out of a tiny garden footprint, barbed wire coiling and fanning off it like vines. These barbed vine patterns recur as baroque curlicues, subtly crisscrossing the surfaces of several paintings. Pierce implies that cruelty is an organic condition, which arises inevitably from the fecund soil of human desire. But crueler still is Nature's indifference, which persists, expertly impartial to mankind's existence—let alone the ecological holocaust it feebly enacts.