With To Those Who Will Not Know the Way, Ryan Pierce’s current show at the Oregon College of Art and Craft’s Hoffman Gallery, the painter has completed a body of work that vividly and, at times, unnervingly imagines the world after cataclysmic climate change. Like the work in its sister exhibition—Written in Exile, shown at the Elizabeth Leach Gallery last fall—Pierce’s acrylic canvases document a possible future, in which human figures are eerily absent, but the natural world continues to thrive as if nothing out of the ordinary has occurred. Now, Pierce has released a book, which pairs these desolate, if always sumptuously painted, tableaux with a text that anchors them to a narrative arc. In the book, which shares its name with the current exhibition, a young boy travels from Mexico toward the promise of communal safety on Vancouver Island, recording his thoughts in a travelogue that documents fear and paranoia as much as ecological ruin.
To mark the occasion of the book’s release, I spoke with Pierce about the project’s origins, the relationship between text and image, and the nascent ideas that are informing his next body of paintings.
Artslant: How did this series come about?
Ryan Pierce: I’d been working on a project for about four years that attempted to depict our world after the end of human industry. It started figurative, showing some possible scenarios of how humanity might rebuild society. Within the general project, I began choosing sub-projects. One emphasized war and sites that had been impacted by human conflict. This body of work was concerned with displacement and immigration. More specifically, I was considering who will be displaced by climate change, where they’ll go, how they’ll they get there, and how they’ll be received once they arrive where they’re going.
AS: At what point did you realize you wanted to extend it beyond the paintings and create an accompanying text?
RP: I became obsessed with the novel The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski. In terms of writing, I don’t know that it’s that phenomenal, but it is an interesting text because of how relentlessly bleak it is and, of course, the fact that it’s allegedly plagiarized. That adds another dimension to it by questioning the idea of originality. I ended up taking away a lot of formal cues for this project. Not only did I use imagery from the text, but it led me to begin looking at work by self-taught Eastern European artists, which became an important influence in the work.
I’d also been interested in discovering new ways to relate my paintings to narrative. Once I began removing the human figures from the pictures, they became stronger—more mysterious and open-ended. The text allows me to work with a kind of specificity that I don’t necessarily want to come through in the paintings.
I was also excited to try something new with the fiction. If I’m unsure of The Painted Bird’s literary merit, there is an admirable pacing and rhythm to its prose, which was something I wanted to echo. I also just wanted to write a roadtrip book.
AS: As you were working, were images or a narrative leading you? That is, did the story you were writing inform the paintings, vice versa, or were they materializing in parallel?
RP: The latter. The text and images developed quite separately, but, as I was going along, I did have a route traced out on a map. I knew I wanted to hopscotch text and images, so I suppose the places that would be included were specific throughout the duration of the project. I’d generate imagery by picking a place and learning about it: Who lives there? What species are endemic? What goes on there? I am from the West Coast, so it’s all in territory I’m familiar with. I’ve been to most of the places I painted or wrote about. I think that setting simply made it easier for me to project the story on to these places and easier for my intended audience to receive it.
AS: The paintings are often so lush and colorful that, though they omit nearly all traces of human existence, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that you’re representing a post-apocalyptic world. That bleakness comes through in the text, however.
RP: The text is definitely bleak in the first half of the book, when I’m explaining the gravity of climate change, especially as it relates to people. But the second half contains elements of hope. The paintings have a tension between bright and dark and hope and desolation that I tried to tease out in the writing. For instance, there’s a section in which I describe the main character, the little boy, as he finally reaches the ocean and sees treetops poking up above the dramatically higher water levels. It’s a sight that I’d imagine is at once terrifying, but also very lovely. I was just in Seattle the other day and I was looking at the [Puget] Sound, imagining how it would look if the water were to rise another 16 feet because the Ross Ice Shelf melts and the West Antarctic Ice sheet slips into the ocean. It wouldn’t change the face of Seattle, but it would make the ocean much more urgent.
AS: With the publication of the book, do you feel like you’ve completed this project on displacement and immigration? Are you ready to move on to something different?
RP: There might be a few more paintings from this body that emerge, but, mostly, I’m ready to move to a different body of work, which will be more about surprise and the unexpected disasters and solutions in nature. It’s early still, but I’ve been thinking a lot about self-organizing systems and a theory by the economist Nassin Taleb called Black Swan. Basically, he asserts that futurism is a silly thing to do, since there will always be world-changing surprises. The name of the theory comes from a common expression of doubt in medieval Europe—that something is “as likely as a black swan.” Of course, once Australia was colonized, it turned out there were, in fact, no shortage of black swans.
Ryan Pierce’s To Those Who Will Not Know the Way is on display at the Oregon College of Art and Craft’s Hoffman Gallery in Portland, Oregon, through February 25th. His work is also on view in the group show Fertilizing Utopias at Soil in Seattle, through February 27th.
- John Motley