In this series of interviews for ArtSlant, I wanted to talk to artists who are also involved in criticism or theory. There are any number of “crossovers” across creative and critical disciplines: Julian Schnabel is a painter and a filmmaker; Mel Bochner is a painter who has also been a good art reviewer. However—using Barnett Newman, and more recently Mira Schor, as examples, as well as the quirky Robert Smithson’s dystopian fantasy world—I’d like to focus on artists who broaden their field through criticism, writing, or curating. I’m kicking off the series in conversation with the painter and writer Ryan Steadman about his paintings of books—possibly the best visual work currently addressing some ideas of art and its relationship to contemporary criticism—his writing, and Zombie Formalism.
Ryan Steadman, Headless West, 2017, Oil on canvas, 21 x 10 x 10 inches. Photo: Safe Gallery
Bradley Rubenstein: I want to talk a bit about some of the ways I see your work fitting into this series of talks. First, though, can you talk a little about your background and your own work?
Ryan Steadman: Well, I went to Pratt Institute in 1998 for graduate school as a painter and have lived in Brooklyn ever since. There was a lot to learn about painting there, but what struck me most was the excellent art criticism program (Marjorie Welish, Robert Morgan), and that quickly became an interest as well, though I didn’t really write until much later on, around 2008.
BR: And what was the point at which you went from making things to thinking about how making things fits into a larger picture?
RS: That’s a good question. I’ve worked for a few galleries over the years, so I’ve seen how the sausage gets made (so to speak), but working at Feature Inc., owned by the late Hudson, perhaps taught me the most about a holistic approach to art. By that I mean I witnessed a gallery being run as an art project, staffed by artists, writers, and curators. This was long before the return of artist-run spaces, yet everyone who was a part of Feature Inc. didn’t seem to locate their artistic output within one simple medium or practice. It was a good energy. Sorry, I sound like a hippie.
Installation view of Ain’tings, Curated by Ryan Steadman, Robert Blumenthal Gallery, March 20—April 26, 2014, Works by George-Henry Longly, Ryan Wallace, Aaron Aujla
BR: I thought that much of your work for Observer was really good art writing. I liked how you and Walter Robinson complemented each other there. He has sort of a Restoration-period feel to his writing, while I kind of pictured you as Christopher Isherwood. The 2014 talk that you and he did where the phrase “Zombie Formalism” was coined—how did that happen?
RS: That was a very strange time, I suppose because of the market. I had been interested in, among other things, NYC artists who were looking back to Arte Povera for inspiration, creating abstract objects and wall works with found objects, but less with actual trash and more with product surplus. There was also an interest in how industry was coming closer and closer to mimicking the “tricks” of painting. It felt very American, I suppose. My interest culminated in a show I put together called Ain’tings. The irony is that, by this time, in 2014, I was already feeling pretty critical about the next generation of these artists, who produced cookie-cutter, high-turnover, and, of course, market-friendly works for a generation of copycat collectors who rated art like stocks. Though I wouldn’t have termed it Zombie Formalism, I had the instinct to call out this work for over a year when Walter dropped his great piece, which many in the art world appreciated. It was a great catchphrase, and Walter kept the ball rolling with opportunities like the SVA talk. (Stefan Simchowitz was originally supposed to be on that panel, which would’ve been fantastic.)
At any rate, I think people craved a retro “fire and brimstone” critic because everything started to feel like a press release, and Walter’s intelligent yet down-to-earth writing countered that. He wasn’t afraid to say “I hate that.” Another irony is that Walter’s painting got a big critical boost after that, so he immediately started writing less! I was—and still am—maybe more even-handed as a critic. I honestly don’t think many artists get into this with a “scheme” in mind. Artists lose the thread because of money or other reasons, but almost all of them have made something with some inspiration involved and a yearning to communicate. I try to always remember that, even when I’m being very critical. Maybe I am a hippie?
Installation view of Ain’tings, Curated by Ryan Steadman, Robert Blumenthal Gallery, March 20—April 26, 2014, Works by Ryan Estep, Graham Collins
BR: The “aha” moment with regard to your writing happened when I read the “Gimme Shelter” piece. This really struck me as almost a throwback to Greenberg and Rosenberg—someone looking at paintings and thinking about them on many levels—psychological, historical, anthropological. And, of course, I found myself thinking, yeah, that’s how I think about painting, too. It also seemed like the inverse of Zombie Formalism. First you have a “movement” of work that is bereft of aesthetic and moral value, then one comes along to correct it.
RS: Thank you. That was really fun to write. I don’t know how many people read it, though [laughs]. For the record, I think these kinds of “corrections” are mostly about fashion, particularly when it comes to painting where new variables are few and far between. The way I see it, certain artists, like a Sergej Jensen in 2005 for instance, help make a style—something that would eventually be described as Zombie Formalism—popular through their own originality. Because of his rise in visibility and the fact that he’s an excellent artist, Jensen’s work inspired many, many young artists. So five to ten years later, the style he helped energize was overwhelmingly prevalent, and since there are more bad and mediocre artists than there are good ones, you start seeing lots of bad examples of what you can loosely file under the term Zombie Formalism. It’s not rocket science, and I don’t think there’s anything malicious about it—it’s a natural series of events. Look at all the bad figurative painting we’re seeing right now. But I think what’s new is how compressed—meaning, fast—the fashion cycles have become, and you have to wonder if ultimately it’s detrimental to all of the artists involved.
Ryan Steadman, You Have to Laugh, 2016, Oil and paper on canvas, 10 x 8 x 1.25 inches. Photo: the artist
BR: So, one of the things I have noted in a lot of contemporary painting is the use of satire as a way of conveying a political position. I think that relates a lot to much of the criticism out there, too. You and Walter both captured something of that in your writing, and looking at your painting I feel that there’s some aspect of that, too. At a very basic level you are making unreadable books, for example.
RS: That’s an interesting take. When I came out of school I started looking closely at a generation of ironic or satirical artists like Lisa Yuskavage and Sean Landers, and my own paintings were originally a paired down form of “slapstick” narratives. I would say that the current book paintings definitely court an ironic reading by simply focusing on the “aesthetic” of reading material rather than its content, but I’d like to think the paintings are as much an earnest questioning of how and why these things came to be. They’re also inspired by a love of the artistic precedents that fueled some of these aesthetics, such as Josef Albers.
Ryan Steadman, Garden Theory, 2015, Oil on canvas, 10 x 8 x 1.5 inches. Photo: Joseph Parra
BR: Yeah, that word “earnest” is key to this discussion. From a literary point of view one really has to love, or be immersed in the subject in order to address it satirically, or critically. I see that in your paintings, yet the irony of “books that can’t be read” as a sort of momento mori is very powerful. I think what this brings up in a way is the relationship between the contemporary viewer and the producer of a text or image. I have seen some really good writing addressing both sides of this—Michel Houellebecq, for example, really investigates the limits of satire, while there are other voices suggesting that the current audience often fails to see it, thus becoming the butt of the joke. Ashley Bickerton’s work in the 80s, for example, was a really biting satire of the art world and art market at the time. I do see artists trying to achieve that currently, like Angela Dufresne, but I think there is a sense of complacency in a lot of viewers that undermines that effort.
RS: If a tree falls in the woods and everyone in town says the sound it made was thunder, does that mean it was thunder? Of course not. But the uninformed audience can still create that narrative. In that case, the viewers are being complacent by not investigating the noise, but they’re under no obligation to. That’s why I think it’s now more important than ever for an artist to find his/her specific audience as soon as possible, because those are the people interested enough to investigate your work and, eventually, become messengers for the work. Because after all, it’s just art. The vast majority of people approach it looking either for decoration or banal commonalities (e.g., the picture has a golfer in it and I like golf).
But yes, I think there’s so much about books that oddly ignite emotions in me. I distinctly remember, having been a struggling reader early on, the intense tedium of books. But today I miss the leisure time that reading books afforded. No one I know has that kind of time available to them, except my young daughter. So maybe there is a mourning of lost youth or lost time in the work?
Ryan Steadman, Installation view from The Painted Word, 2012, Karma
BR: Do you separate the ideas and subject matter you write about from your studio work, or do you see one as elaborating on another? There are a lot of topics that are easier to tackle in writing, I think, that would be difficult to address in a painting.
RS: I think as far as my writing goes, the ideas and subjects are fairly separate from what I’m pursuing in the studio. For one, the media outlet often determines what is written about, and second, I feel as if I really need to do the research and expand my knowledge base in order to adequately write about a new artist or show. That being said, I cannot help but have a certain point of view that I bring to both my art and my writing, and the work I’m writing about will often inspire my own studio process. I would say my writing vacillates between stumping for art that I know is good and needs more recognition, and art that feels foreign and can teach me something new.
Ryan Steadman, Blue Blazes at Dawn, 2017, Oil on canvas, 19 x 12 x 7 inches. Photo: Joseph Parra
BR: You just showed your own work at Safe Gallery in Williamsburg. Can you talk a little about the new paintings?
RS: Yes, it was a two-person show with the painter Anna Schachte, who makes lively and freewheeling abstractions that riff off of letters of the alphabet. Though I’ve often shown my work on the wall, this show gave me the chance to really position the pieces as “sculpture” more than ever before. I’ve always considered the work to be a synthesis of painting and sculpture, since the canvases are painted in the round so as to further emulate books (with spines and pages), but this is the first time I’ve shown most of these paintings flat, and it really emphasizes all the different angles of them. On top of that, this is the first show where I’ve created “assemblages” of the books. I started by simply stacking them on top of each other to highlight new color and line combinations, but that led to even more acrobatic experimentations.
Those ideas came after some talks with the artist Ethan Greenbaum, who selfishly wanted me to expose the backs of my canvases in novel ways. (Ethan often turns accidentally exposed parts of buildings into luminous and mystical objects through his own multi-pronged art process.) It was a great idea, of course, and I also happened to be very into the animated geometries of Joel Shapiro at the time. I think it just furthers how I’ve wanted to push the aesthetic focus of the book into the spotlight. I like relating books to paintings, an art form that “died” and then had to be loved for its pure form instead of its function. The book is going through something similar, what with information moving to the internet. It’s absurd that we still have all these giant, heavy books lying around, but we still like them, I guess.
Bradley Rubenstein is a New York-based artist and writer.
(Image at top: Ryan Steadman, The Village Green, 2017, Oil on canvas, 14 x 11 x 1.5 inches. Photo: Joseph Parra)