I told my editor I would write a review of your show but I think we're too good of friends for that so here is a letter instead. Back when we were in school together you were the first to introduce the word "industry" when talking about art; and I remember you brought it out like some parking lot Matthew McConaughey-ism, something like, "Industry, man... industry,” which was a lot better than what I’d been hearing, whatever that was.
This was undergrad and I think most of us were too stuck on getting to aura through some cruel delusion of unique identity or formal experimentation or breakthrough content. And getting there quick, before we had our degrees and whatever death or dishonor came next. But the way you worked presented a pragmatic exit, a patient and full view of our vocation as Young Artists Just Working Hard, and it was humble too, working at whatever our work looked like that day, wherever it was at when we got to the studio. But you didn’t just stop at Industry either, but actually went beyond the studio, showing up to shows, connecting with the artists we liked, listening carefully at bars, taking advice, learning, etc. It was pretty clear that work without network was just as hopeless as network without work was lame, and though there was no way to say what we were doing and definitely no cool way to say it, I caught the subtext.
Wherever you got that from (Geoffrey?), I think you've proved the slow bank strategy, spent your ten-thousand-hours smart and early, but also built a very robust network of artists and friends who respect what you do and want to see you do well. You're in a really healthy spot, and I don't think that is going to change, but anyway, given all that above, here's what I was trying to say at the fair:
"River Rats" is a good show full of good work, and your solo works are working right, but those collaborations are so interesting they make it hard not to write about the show as a crossroads in your practice, a real match between the artist's work and the artist's network. I told you I'd thought you have too many pieces in the main space, but what I meant was that none of those pieces stand up to the challenge coming from the side-space. It would have taken big declarative pieces blowing up the best parts of your independent studio practice to match how well your aesthetic was getting on in the other room; you would have had to go beyond your narratives and aesthetics and demonstrate the quality of your personal autonomy in making them.
Ryan Travis Christian & Rachel Niffenegger. Untitled. 2011. Graphite, mixed media on paper. Image courtesy of Western Exhibitions and the artists.
You've been experimenting with other people's work for a while, and every year has brought your studio practice and your network of artists closer together. Writing became curating became collaborating. When you mentioned you'd be working collaboratively for this show it sounded like a perfect way to get those two not just in the same gallery or the same room, but in the same frame too.
So I guess I'm hesitant to share what I think you're doing because I'm not sure what it is, only that I feel like its worth the industry. This latest experiment with more present collaboration produced some very cool pieces, however if you're going to push that while also keeping the solo work I think you'll need to differentiate them in a more present way, really get at demonstrating the kind of work you can do alone, that you can't do with other artists. Balance that by then pushing the boundaries of the kinds of things you can do on the same frame with more than one artist. Maybe these are a way to walk your practice up, one always trying to top the other.
Keep in mind that this is actually really interesting material for nerd artists like me right now, and your work fits into questions I’ve heard and have about whether traditional studio work is bound to traditional studio practice - separate, solo, single, salable, standing, smoking, sort of drunk - or whether artists can get something like a drawing to fit with the way kids these days are doing things. I could write you into that story easily based on what you've done so far, I could call "River Rats" the moment when Ryan Travis Christian opened up the studio, I could put in phrases like "the networked practice" or "contemporary methods" in there too. Keep the trend and you're going to hear those a lot more, so heads up. Personally, I think you're still figuring out why you’re bringing in other people at all, why you think that is worth doing, and how to do it without losing your own voice and narrative content, which is best solo. I’ll do my thing and you do yours and let’s compare notes some time.