5/30/2018 at Hair + Nails
Leia Wambach: So maybe let’s start by talking about how you first began making visual art.
Ryan Fontaine: I guess I started young, drawing. I’ve always kind of made visual art but I didn’t think of myself as a visual artist. When I was a little bit older I kind of immersed myself in the punk music world, and the focus was music but there was always visual components to it whether it be flyers or making artwork for albums. And then even further, later down that path there was more and more of that, but also creating spaces – so like designing spaces, and it was important to me what they looked like visually.
Leia: So, like performance venues?
Ryan: Performance venues. I have a long history of that. I thought about the venues spatially, the way people move thru them and that has kind of informed how I think of the installation of whole bodies of work or how sculpture sits in a room.
Leia: And so when do you kind of commit fully to having a studio practice?
Ryan: I’ll try not to make it too long, but there was kind of a specific process. I occasionally volunteered as janitor or dishwasher at the Seward Cafe, a collective restaurant that has been around for something like 30 years. They were very supportive of scumbags like myself at the time and someone asked me to make an art show. I started painting and became obsessed. The show was very successful in that of the 30 or 40 paintings I made, they all found homes. Not necessarily for money, but drugs, art trades, etc. This was very encouraging and was followed by the gallery Art of This asking me to make a show.

Leia: And it was a solo show?
Ryan: It was a two person show, and what I decided to do was this pattern (gesturing to repetitive graphite piece), but way more intricate, much smaller condensed lines. I had this really ambitious idea- there was gonna be these kinetic sculptures as well- but the process was so ridiculous, not really feasible. It was like hundreds of hours that it took to do this and I wasn’t even really done by the show. It ended up being these four little drawings that were kind of half done. I didn’t even frame them. On one hand I didn’t capture this vision I had, sort of failed to pull it off. But I was also doing something more serious pictorially than I had up to that point and – because I did this little line for so many hours – the muscle memory I developed was really noticeable right away. Technically, I suddenly had way more control of my line. It felt joyful to have so much control, and I just kept on painting.

At the same time, I was discovering the history of art for the first time, coming from far outside that context. I was in my 30’s and just really seeing Picasso’s work for the first time, for example. I found a Taschen book of his art at Saver’s and was totally blown away. I suddenly had a clear idea of what I wanted to do with my life and my time, and then I just voraciously devoured everything I could get at the library and kind of taught myself about art history. I was already going to museums as an occasional pass time, this was the late 90’s, early 2000’s, the Weismann, MIA, the Walker. I didn’t even know necessarily who the artists were, but in retrospect I remember some of the exhibits and now I know who the artists were and I feel lucky to have seen some of those shows, like Mathew Barney, Thomas Hirschorn.

Leia: I know that we’ve talked before about how several works in this show kind of reference other artist or related to work by other people. Could you say more about who those artists are and why you’re interested in their work?
Ryan: Sure. I think the closest I feel to any other artist’s style may be like this column painting. There’s something about Philip Guston that it reminds me of. But it’s also Nicolas de Stael, who’s a big influence – that style of representational abstraction is really important to me. Richard Diebenkorn is another example of an artist who paints like that and is influential. Giorgio Morandi as well. 

Then if I reference my early experiences at the Walker, something that completely blew my mind was Cremaster 3 that was on display, and later an installation of set pieces from the Cremaster trilogy. That was shocking, the first time I had seen anything like it. I felt like the imagery was provocative, evocative, and wilder than anything going on in the punk scene. Not necessarily even specifically punk but underground, weird art and music culture, which is where I was coming from. It was way more effective than a lot of the extreme imagery I had grown up around or was producing or was seeing.
Leia: And effective in what way?
Ryan: Effective in its strangeness – it’s creation of otherness. Just a visceral feeling of being unsettled. Another influential artist might be David Lynch, his film but also his painting. He creates a whole emotional feeling around his work that makes me uneasy. I like that. I think that’s difficult to do.
Leia: It kind of surrounds you.
Ryan: Yeah. So I felt like those films by Matthew Barney are some of the most effective examples of that type of mood-setting art ever produced and I was seeing that for the first time. I didn’t know what to make of it. In ways I was completely repelled by it and in ways as drawn to it as I was some of my early visual influences. Artists like Raymond Pettibon, Pushead, punk record art and flyers, 80’s skate graphics, magazines like Maximum Rock N’ Roll that were so appealing and so different than anything else I had ever seen and pushed me to try find more. That’s what Matthew Barney did, but in a contemporary art context.
Leia: Thinking of Matthew Barney and that kind of strangeness or disgusting-ness that he kind of puts you into, I feel like a lot of your works deal with the body in a way that’s maybe a little disgusting or frightening via material or objects — like the belts or the hairs, I’m thinking of. The gloves that don’t appear so much in these works but have been in other places.

Ryan: Definitely, but I don’t see them as disgusting exactly. I think of for instance, another influence for me is Francis Bacon. His paintings can come across as disgusting or violent even, but there’s also this beauty in them, and there’s also this reality — I do think the body is messy. I don’t like it to be overly sanitized. I like in that way the grotesque gigantism of some of the hair follicles that I draw or actually using hair.
Leia: What about the belts or the glove?

Ryan: It’s kind of the sweet spot where I like to be, where it does work as a loaded visual element but it also works as an abstract formal element. For instance with this (gesturing at Pelt), if those were just lines or rectangles it would probably be set the same way as far as placement in the composition. But then I’d probably want to add something that takes it away from just geometric abstraction. It would need to be displayed next to things that then give it context. So I like to work in groupings of paintings.
Leia: Right. Would you say a little bit more about that and also about, I see a lot in your work this iteration or reiteration of a work via different material or just repetition within your practice.
Ryan: Yeah. I really like the idea of repetition. I think a lot about analog repetition and digital repetition. Analog repetition often has a deterioration to it or an alteration with each generation. With digital you can actually produce things that are exact copies because it’s just the ones and zeros, the ons and offs, and it’s becoming the exact same thing when you transfer it. With visual deterioration, I think you end up with unexpected flaws in the imagery that can be the most interesting parts of the work. I’m thinking about these belts and tape lines that I’ve used in the past. Maybe with the tape lines I found a particular way it tore so I duplicate how it tore. So it becomes not just any piece of tape but that particular piece of tape, repeated. Because my process is built to fail, it will be slightly different, and that’s part of it too. An adherence to the repetition of form but at the same time an embrace of its breakdown.

Leia: Along with this interest in repetition and decay, you seem committed to maintaining a brand or personal mark that is transported throughout various works seems important to you. Would you say more about that?

Ryan: It’s like another influence, the punk label Crass Records, which had a certain look. You could tell from the look of their records, shirts, books, film, immediately it had something to do with that collective of anarcho-punks who were doing amazing things, making amazing music. I really like the idea of being able to transfer that feeling of a certain artist’s voice through different mediums, artists who, no matter what medium they’re working in, scale or whatever, you can tell that it’s their work. I’m interested in artists who transcend just one style or are able to take the essence of a certain imagery and then transfer it to other works where the formal nature of that imagery maintains itself but maybe conceptually it changes, or vice versa. Like this feeling that you’re looking at something that you think you understand but then, without being too tricky or too illusionistic, your perception is betrayed in a certain way. There’s a fine line, because I’m not that interested in Op-Art or things that are too illusionistic or overly clever.
Leia: I feel like this kind of gets at the title of the show, this idea of the confounding variable, which in science is an outside uncontrolled factor that can influence the results of an experiment or even make it unusable. What about that idea resonates with you in terms of these works on view?
Ryan: Well there’s a couple things. During a studio visit, an artist was talking about one of my works that has a breached surface, Strap. It’s from the last show. They used the word “confounding” in regard to its figure/ground relationship, and it just stuck in my head. Well, that’s exactly what I’m trying to do without, again, being too tricky about it. I want it to feel solid but ask the question, “What is figure and ground in painting?” Question some of the foundational elements of painting. That’s important to me.
 I came across that term and was drawn in by the “confounding” part. It describes a factor in an experiment that throws it all out of whack. It’s seen as a negative within an experiment where you’re trying to isolate these particular components that will tell you one thing about the subject or another. But in contemporary art, it felt like it was putting a name to an elusive and important aspect. There’s almost no specific rules within contemporary art, but you can tell when it’s effective or when it’s not working. I think it usually involves something like what I’m saying is the confounding variable. It becomes a positive, this unexpected piece of the puzzle.

Leia: That’s interesting, that idea that you encounter a work of art and you know in this unidentifiable place whether it’s right or not. That to me is a very emotional reaction typically, of recognition maybe.
Ryan: I lived in San Francisco before I moved to Minneapolis a couple of years ago. The top floor in the SFMOMA is newer art. There’s a lot of solo shows below, or modernist art, photography, the permanent collection, but that contemporary floor – every time I go in there it’s the most difficult, but most worthy of intensive viewing because there’s so many different approaches people are taking, there’s so many different materials people are using, and it’s so weird sometimes, but then sometimes is so weird because it’s so mundane. It makes me feel hopeful that the individual voice of an artist can still be heard. Visual art is one of the few places where I still feel like there is and will always be this endless well of possibilities and material to process through. You could really find your own unique way of expressing what you need to express, because it can be almost anything. But it can’t be everything (laughing).
Leia: We haven’t talked yet about the push and pull between sculpture and painting in your work, and I’m curious about your loyalty to one or the other or how you see the two relating.
Ryan: I think a place where I really like to exist is a confluence between both. I think of these (gesturing at paintings) as three dimensional objects. That’s how I break it down. I think it can go anywhere it wants, including spilling out into the entire gallery space, but I still am interested in this area, this rectangle of elements coming together and feeling resolved. I sometimes like setting parameters, limitations, but I also feel like I have no problem making it whatever it needs to be. I think paintings can also be effective parts of a sculpture or installation. Of all narrowly defined art forms, painting is probably the most interesting to me because I think it’s so difficult to pull off, but I also don’t feel like there’s anything so precious about it that it can’t be altered in any way. I’m kind of fascinated still with the pictorial space and also painting as an object. Abstraction can sit next to photorealism. It doesn’t matter, but you’ve still gotta figure out how to make it work. You can do whatever. I think a contemporary painter can cross over into sculpture, installation, whatever.

Leia: I like thinking about painting as this maybe generative restrictive space — the frame, but also the practice itself. I’m also interested in the way you do combine realism and abstraction within your painted works. What purpose does that combining have for you?
Ryan: I think you approach it with a blank slate, or some idea, then just free yourself to follow wherever it needs to go. There’s a certain traditionalism to painting, or there can be, that’s way too precious, too repressive. So I guess that’s what I’m trying to get at is if you think of it as this object that you’re making, regardless if it’s canvas stretched on stretcher bars, it’s still this object that anything can happen to. I think it’s freeing, and I think you can avoid that preciosity – if that’s even a word. Some approaches seem too rooted in the past, almost stagnant.

Leia: I’m curious about the emotional space that plays out, especially in a painter where you are shifting between realistic representation and abstraction. Would you talk about that?
Ryan: Sure. Is there one in particular?
Leia: Yeah, like the de Stael(Columns) piece. And that one has the sculptural, assemblage component too.
Ryan: It does have that, and it also has – like we were talking about – the reference to the body. I think it has an ominous feeling as well. It feels anthropomorphic. That’s my favorite painting in the show.
Leia: And when you’re talking about this anthropomorphic feeling are you referring to the pink column?
Ryan: I am referring to that. It’s a tough one to talk about actually. Not emotionally, but technically. Some of the decisions I made, maybe I’ll take it from that direction. This felt too anthropomorphic in a way(the right column) too humanoid, so one thing I did to try and take it out of that was to add legs to it at this point(mid way up the column), hopefully breaking that apart, that idea that it’s one figure. This looked hand-like(a large black hair), and I wanted it to not feel so much like an appendage, but I want it to be pointing, at the same time. So adding the legs solved both problems.

Leia: I hadn’t thought of this before, but it’s placed within your studio, that’s the setting of the painting. Do you think about it in terms of a self-portrait?
Ryan: I feel it in terms of a self-portrait, now that you mention it. I do relate to that as myself somehow, though I wasn’t thinking of that when I was making it.
Leia: Yeah. That’s kind of sweet… (both laughing) 
Ryan: This painting was a very elusive process to go through, so I think that’s why I like it the most. I like visually how it just works, and I like the palette for instance, and some of the other formal aspects of it. I just feel like it’s the one that’s most mysterious to me, still, at this point, and I feel like it always will be somewhat mysterious, even though I know how I went from one place to the other. I ask myself, why even start to make that collection of forms?

Leia: Is the way it ended up mysterious or more your decision making process?
Ryan: The decision making process is pretty straight forward. I could make a pretty accurate list of how each thing came to be, but the collection of those — all the conflicts and confluences of imagery and colors. It’s the whole. This finished product that is the puzzle. I feel like it’s separate from myself, at least separate from my conscious self. It feels surreal, but it doesn’t feel like specific imagery that’s based on dreams. Something deeper, perhaps.

Leia: What about your emotional landscape or state in making these works in general? What was it like, and are there any works that especially reflect that?
Ryan: For one example, these pattern ones were a way of dealing with the winter — just having this process that I was able to… I knew what I wanted to see when I was finished, but to get there was a long and time consuming process, and that’s what I needed this winter. I needed a project like that. It was a difficult winter, just in general a difficult winter. Just the ups and downs. Things, I think, are a little emotionally harder in winter here. It’s a big part of being here.
Leia: I like that aspect of your practice. It’s quite clever, that you have systems built in that allow you to be doing work even if you don’t maybe feel like doing creative work — or creatively, intellectually rigorous work. You can revert back to this craftsmanship or manual project.
Ryan: Yeah. The mold-making is like that. It’s days and days of just doing this same thing over and over again. Or building boxes or so on. And then something like this(Columns)  I have to be in a really stable emotional state, although the process will be a roller coaster. There will be points where I feel like I’ve failed — like failed in this fundamental way. It’s like, absolute. Failed in everything and will never succeed at anything again! And then two hours later the opposite. That’s just the way it is. I love and hate that. It feels like something is at stake, my whole identity and life, you know?
 This one I felt pretty on top of it. Maybe that’s why I like it too. I feel like I’m always learning how to paint, and I feel like I had ideas I was trying to express and was successful at it, which feels pretty good. I wanted those objects to feel that certain way, to feel that weight, to feel that contour, and they did. Or that flatness. Like the flatness against an impasto surface of way too thick, but a flatness on top of that. That was an oil stick that I just mashed onto it. And kind of everything worked. But an example of what didn’t would be that couch. Not the one with Kristin on it — that was difficult, but the other one way more difficult.
Leia: What was difficult about that one?
Ryan: Just the absolute failure of it, the initial idea. I don’t know. It came late in this body of work. Once I knew what the whole show was going to be, each element was totally crucial. So it’d be hard to leave it out. I would have felt like that was a failure. It was necessary. Then I had this idea and didn’t have a lot of time to start over. Plus, I had done this thing (gesturing to back of couch, a collection of thin hair lines), which was like 40 hours or something, and the painting really wasn’t working. It was just this kind of despair. It’s silly, and I can step back from it, but I really feel it. I maintain some perspective, but it’s hard to go to sleep. And I’m waiting for the next day to work on it. So anyways, I went down a wrong path and went really far down it. It’s so weird, because I could feel the silliness of, “How important is that in relation to all the world’s problems?” and so on, but it felt like crushing defeat. It’s up there with reading something about Donald Trump that day where you’re like, “Oh my god. The apocalypse! We’re doomed!” It’s on that level. “My painting is fucked too!” (both laughing).
Leia: Yup. We are only people. Yikes.
Ryan: So what is often the pathway out of something like that is to take drastic action. So I just covered a lot of it and made space, destroyed many hours of work. It was too crowded. Within two hours, I totally finished it, and I’m very happy with it.
Leia: Yeah, what’s it like to see it now?
Ryan: I love it. This is my second favorite one. I guess what I like about it is that it’s a painterly painting, and I like some of the sketchiness of the line, the halo around things, knowing that I felt like it was an absolute failure and that I brought it back from that.
Leia: When you say a painterly painting, I interpret that as a work that has this almost linguistic component, where another painter would look at it and understand this technique happened here. Is that what you mean?
Ryan: Sure. The handling of the paint, there’s parts in this that I’m proud of. I really like the brush stroke through this — the efficiency of creating this three dimensional object. I like where it is impasto and where it’s flat. I like where it is matte and where it’s glossy. This light blue halo that exists around that black object. I like those black objects. The brush stroke is really apparent, and it’s all oil paint, and it’s all done with a few pigments of oil paint.
Leia: That book that you loaned me on Robert Irwin — I started reading it, and it begins with this note about how he wouldn’t allow any of his works to be photographed out of concern for preserving the experience of viewing them until much later on in this career.
Ryan: When he stopped caring.
Leia: Right. Do you feel like you’re protective of your works in any way?
Ryan: No, not in that way, but because of the scale I work at, one thing I think is that they don’t translate very well to internet pictures. I think they need to be experienced, but I’m not protective of it. I just try hard to get people to come and see the show in person. I think some artist’s work do translate to photos on the phone. They look better on Instagram then they actually are. I think that’s never the case with mine. Not protective necessarily, but I think about it. How to promote the shows. How much I want to give away.
Leia: Maybe to wind down a little bit, is there anything that you weren’t thinking about when you started this body of work but that now you’re very interested in?
Ryan: Well I was thinking that I wanted to make a couple installations that involved moving parts and specific technology that I had used before but wanted explore further. These turntables and using video, different directions that the kinetic work can go, I’m pretty interested in following that thread. Hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to do that soon.
Leia: What drew you to that, especially the idea of adding movement or projection?
Ryan: I used motion in one sculpture several years ago and at one of our (HAIRandNAILS) shows recently, the artist Karen Sherman had these videos of her moving these, you know the one with the…

 (The video was installed in the basement. She used a magnet to manipulate paper clips and other metal debris over the surface of a table, mimicking cosmic movement.) 

Leia: Yeah, so cool.
Ryan: And I just felt mesmerized by it. I actually don’t think art should be too utilitarian, but I did like the specific function of just being calming, almost meditative. I wanted to have that feel- I like repetitive systems, loops. I used to be really into listening to the same tape loop over and over again for hours and hours and hours on end. I like the idea that these are sort of like systemic loops but also evolving. I like the concept that a small number of different factors can create a system that never will be the same. If you shuffle a deck of cards, they have never been shuffled and ended up the same way. Things like that take the entire universe and the idea of being a human in the universe completely out of this realm of the mundane into this fantastical space of amazing possibilities. I was trying to harness this feeling of something that requires a little bit of patience but that you can contemplate for a long time.
Leia: Do you have anything else you want to say or any works that you want to talk about that we haven’t?
Ryan: No. We could leave it for another time. I feel like that was pretty good, and a good note to end on.

Leia Wambach is a Minneapolis-based museum educator, writer, and occasional visual artist.