—Essay by Michael Duncan, Art in America, “Talking Trees” Exhibition Catalog
Like a sinuous, overstimulated psychoanalyst, Sharon Ryan tests her patient-viewers with suggested Rorschach blots, made by highlighting and elaborating the patterns of wood grain. As we discern shapes and objects lurking in Ryan’s paintings, we are implicated in her visions of the sinuous tendrils and viscous ooze that shape protozoic, vegetal and animal life. In nature, wood grain patterns are free-form, vein like estuaries that transmit nutrients through a tree; for naturalists, they reveal specimens’ histories, delineating their growth over time. The histories that Ryan records are the off-kilter, sexual experiences of polymorphous creatures with quirky, ungainly features. The fishes and fowls, worms and snails, penises and vulvae that her works evoke describe an imaginary biology, a science generated by a psyche open to all forms of fantastical life.
Ryan’s fixation on organic guilds partially stems from her life as a diabetic. with blood tests every four hours and insulin shots with each meal, she experiences a kind of ingrained consciousness of her body’s inner needs and unseen structures. Her panels allow her to translate that consciousness into a kind of organic calligraphy. Furthermore, by using wood grain as a structural starting-place, Ryan is able to find a solid ground for organic abstraction, taking in a new direction forms explored earlier by Joan Miro, Paul Klee, and Arshile Gorky. As if suddenly sprung into life, Ryan's squiggles and blobs emerge from the actual markings of their birchwood panels, thereby eliminating traditional painterly struggle between figure and ground. . . .
All the works rely on a delicate balance between found patterns and gestural embellishments. With their sensual, modulated lines inspired by Japanese erotic art, Ryan's paintings offer a kind of free-form decoration, playfully embossing the organic forms the humanize seeks out in nature. . . .
With the metamorphic magic of a fairytale, Ryan's tree divulge realms of melting flowers, spermlike serpents, tattooed trunks, and blossoming bosoms. Like the cranky, talking oaks in the “Wizard of Oz,” they are only comically menacing. These unlikely creatures emerge from the narrow, murky depths to scare us, but we know they can't follow; they are rooted and immobile, stuck in their places his paintings on the wall. As sumptuous objects for psychoanalytical contemplation, however, they do more than just “quicken the spirit of invention” they take us back to the protozoic skirmishes, squeamish phobias and erotic urges that sparked the origin of the species.
— Essay by Susan Kandel, Art & Text editor, Exhibition Catalog
Sharon Ryan’s art seems to trace the path of liquid – tears, if you will – as if flows, spills, wanders, double-backs, pirouettes, courses and pools. This is not to say, however, that her paintings incarnate the spirit of melancholy – except, perhaps, insofar as they indulge melancholy’s perverse luxuriousness, its refined torpor. Rather, Ryan merges Romanticism’s embrace of bodily effusions (“proof” of suffering or ecstasy) with slapstick’s penchant for sight gags. Which is to say her pictures are both a head trip and a crack-up.
A disembodied eyeball drifts toward an oil spill; drooping testicles morph into butterfly wings; raindrops become kidney stones; a penis-cum-skyscraper encounters a free-floating eyelash. Ryan’s quicksilver quasi-abstractions can be quite disarming: nothing in them looks the same twice. Like Rohrshach blots, they don’t represent anything in particular; they are slyer than that, calibrating the viewer’s innocence, knowingness, mood, and taste for tomfoolery – all of which shift from moment to moment.
Ryan paints on planks of birch, sanded and treated with a matte medium. Sometimes she goes with the grain, echoing its whorls, plotting its tributaries, unmasking its strange asymmetries, revelling in its vertiginous sweeps and falls; other times, she goes against it. Sometimes the markings are lavish, almost hypercharged, as if the brush couldn’t stop skittering across the surface; other times, they are spare. In some of the new works, done in the palest of skin tones, the marks all but fade into the woodwork, which may or may not be a metaphor worth noting. Other new paintings are executed in the uncanny blue of veins glimpsed through a scrim of skin. Here is a metaphor that is undoubtedly germane: Ryan’s vein-like embellishments on wood grain form a conceit about…wood grain, which itself traces the circular system of the tree.
Ryan’s vein-like embellishments on wood grain form a conceit about…wood grain, which itself traces the circulatory system of the tree.
Peach and blue: at least in relation to the earlier works in black and red, these tones suggest a sweetness the new paintings do not bear out. Indeed, they are beautiful, quite remarkably so, but hardly icons of sentimentality. That’s because Ryan chooses her colors not for their eye-candy quotient, but because of their corporeal associations. And though it can be said that the work has always conjured the body (its flows, its wastes, its rhythms), here, Ryan’s calligraphic ornamentation adheres to its surface the way flesh adheres to bone.