Images, Orgasms, and Edges: Ryan Fontaine’s A Pale and Simple Light
by Brooks Turner
The human world is made up of material and immaterial forces—bodies, landscapes, structures, ideas, ideologies, spiritualities, physics and the imagination. To our brains and bodies, all are equally real, equally present, even (or especially) in contradiction. In Ryan Fontaine’s Hair+Nails takeover, we are thrust into this chaos through candied torsos, CCTVs, grass, nails, severed cat legs, belts bandaged into crosses, and one violent, mechanized dildo. These images and symbols open onto Pop, most surprisingly in references to Christianity. In this context, his title, A Pale and Simple Light, rings with the humble exaltation of transcendence, and yet the seductive materiality of his work grounds us in physicality.
In The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, Gian Lorenzo Bernini sought to visualize the transcendent and physical experience Saint Teresa had when visited by an angel:
I saw in [the angel’s] hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it.
The nun experienced a hallucinatory death in Christ as orgasm, the body opening onto eternal Oneness. Fontaine’s “Apparatus #2: Three Uneasy Motions,” might be his version of Bernini’s sculpture. A long silicone appendage at the end of a motor violently thrashes at intervals—starting, stopping, starting, stopping—becoming the angel’s spear, a phallus of pain and pleasure. A slowly turning cube atop a pedestal contains wiry entrails seen only from above. At a distance, an installation of green, red, and purple light—a kind of abject Turrell—projecting onto and around a slowly turning cube suspended at head height feels hallucinatory, which I read in this context as the immateriality of “the other side.” Lastly, a TV monitor plays looping clips of all three uneasy motions captured by CCTV, merging each sculpture into a singular visual experience—the Oneness of it all. When DMT floods our brain at the end of life, we may in fact experience death as orgasmic, but the oneness of the other side is as much material as it is immaterial: ecstasy, orgasm, body, life, death—transcendence.
Immediately above this installation, at the center of the main room of Hair+Nails, Fontaine’s sculpture, Germination, acts as a headstone marking the death-orgasm buried below. The grave base sculpted itself through the internal force of expanding foam, which ripped open its canvas container before freezing solid. From this point of rupture, wriggling pubic hairs worm their way into the world. A cubic neck of pink and green epoxy leads upward to an irregularly shaped cross at top, thus affirming the image of the sculpture as a six-foot tall headstone. Scaffold of Nails hangs on the wall immediately behind. At a distance, the sharp contrast between a clear, but yellowing, rectangular epoxy center and a brown-gray epoxy frame, hides the thousands of nails that give this relief its color. In such proximity to the cross and grave, it’s hard to avoid images of crucifixion and the stigmata entering my mind.
So often in these works, I am brought to their edges. In the space between the wall and Scaffold of Nails, points of steel emerge from the epoxy, digging lightly into the drywall. A vertical triptych of red, pink, and blue epoxy torso’s mirror this gesture from an adjacent wall. The translucent cast surface of a chest meets a reflective rectangle mounted to a wall. There is a sensuality to the way the body meets the rectangle, but voyeurism in the way we encounter the surface of the skin either through the translucent veil of dyed epoxy or seen from the side, face pressed against the wall. At the edges of these works, I can escape the absorbing symbology of sex and Christianity and enter into material abstraction. In Scaffold of Nails, I feel the weight of the work and contemplate the delicacy of a nail; In Blue Torso, Pink Torso, and Red Torso, I become lost in the play of light and color glistening through reflective canyons. This feels profound: to step from the spotlight and into the margins, we disperse images and ideologies while engaging underlying structures. Is the pale and simple light that which is felt from the edges?
Grow lights flood Green Room, an installation of living “grass paintings” mounted to bright green walls, with the intensity of the sun—aggressive to my indoor-acclimated eyes. Here is the perfect image of summer, and yet I am left unsettled. While my eyes can adjust to the light, my body cannot feel the warming rays of midday sunshine. Reading the material list, “grass dye” further challenges the truth of the image of life—are these paintings really alive or merely made to look living? Certainly there is life here, or else the long shoots of grass would wilt more intensely under the weight of gravity. The line between life and death is blurred; there is no dichotomy but rather a material continuity becoming immaterial, becoming material, and again becoming immaterial. The multiplicity of reality is felt rather than determined; transcendence can be real even in the absence of dogma. Every Spring, as snow melts, trees bud, and new grass shoots break through a layer of dead foliage, we experience in the damp smells and tiny bursts of color a transcendence of sorts, life reasserting itself. Despite the schismatic theatricality of Green Room, I am left with this thought of hope as I leave the installation.
I finally find the pale and simple light of Fontaine’s exhibition title in Soft Rainbow Hard Stripes, a large oil and epoxy painting, layered with thin, translucent coats of pigment that feel airy and spatial despite the flatness of the canvas. The colors lack the visual purity that often comes with analogous minimalist works, but it is in those subtle variations in hue that the painting comes to life, transcends. We do not need to think of transcendence through the lens of internal explosions or orgasmic reveries—simply experiencing the edges of things, where purity fails, is an exaltation.
Brooks Turner is an artist, writer, and educator currently focused on the history of fascism in Minnesota. His work has appeared at the Weisman Art Museum, Soo Visual Art Center, Steve Turner Contemporary, Claremont Graduate University, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Zhou B Art Center, among others. He is Chair of Visual Art at St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists and a lecturer at the University of Minnesota and St. Cloud State University. He is the author of A Guide to Charles Ray Sleeping Mime, published with Paperleaf Press, as well as numerous essays published by Hair+Nails, TEMP/reviews, and Art Papers. Brooks is currently a Jerome Artist-in-Residence at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts and a 21/22 MCAD-Jerome Early Career Artist Fellow.
On A Pale and Simple Light
by Cameron Downey
A PALE AND SIMPLE LIGHT, the exhibition filled to comfortable capacity with works by artist and curator Ryan Fontaine at moments adheres to its allocated title, as the first piece in greeting opposite the gallery front doors seems lit as advertised– simply. It’s a small artwork that teeters on the three-headed margin of painting, sculpture and momento, as we’ll soon find many of Fontaine’s entry room works to do. Nails crowd the borders of a murky epoxy in A SCAFFOLD OF NAILS, at times cracking along their shafts. The coagulated metal pins are at once both an ingredient and a demise of the form in which they reside. The hosting layer of these nails is the hue of a flesh like lemonade. We’ll find the paleness a continuing cushion across and between Fontaine’s pieces, punctuated again and again by fuming pinks and cold (also pink) flesh tones.
While maybe 24”x12”, A SCAFFOLD OF NAILS seems massive, likely hard to carry. Though it has the centerpiece wall to itself, the work is guarded if not first welcomed by GERMINATION, the sum and tower of a cross held by sutures atop more reluctantly transparent epoxy blocks of swamp-like chartreuse and sticky, hot pink. Supporting the trifecta of parts is what looks at once like the aftermath of a bikini wax and the rugged first roots of a community of glossy black sprout-lets. In all but color GERMINATION seems to belong inside the swampy blocks above, both aspects having the disposition of irreverent, tipsy ecologies. It’s at once unsettling and warm.
Elsewhere and always again, the body resurfaces along planned and mechanical lines within the show. It’s never quite present, always choosing between form or texture and never the satisfaction or rather the obviousness of both. THREE TORSOS and THREE BANDAGED BREAKS walk alongside each other as testament.
GREEN ROOM pulsates from between this inaugural crowd of its affiliate works. It emits and sequesters as only that shade of radioactive chartreuse can. Within life in decay is life itself: climbing and perching on the walls. It reads as a science experiment in due process, the subjects of study under barred fluorescents perfectly matched to each portal of grass’s aerosol border. The dirt beneath is held by nothing we can see, but around it still is painted matter not unlike the snaking trunks of young, eager trees.
Descent into A PALE AND SIMPLE LIGHT’s lower level dissolves some curiosity in return for and in favor of some self-assured disquiet. The lights here are immediately more interrogating, whitest whites wash over the genesis of upstairs’ sprouts and cast shadows in its flood (see: HAIR ROOM). Steaming pink stands tall and alone in the corner, the inverse of a fleshlight is caught beating and grinding against bolted leather in SEARCH LIGHT. The pedestal shakes. The closed circuit cameras that witness over and over remain calm.
Translucent but no less certain of a cube takes stock of the room, casting its offspring on the wall, delicate and seasonal purgatories of their progenitor’s form. A car hangs on for everlasting dear life. All of it, everything going awry and creeping around is being recorded and retold on CCTV, the affect being an endless first glance at off kilter and other worldly current events. Not even the light feels simple.
Cameron Downey is an anti-disciplinary artist and environmental scientist from Minneapolis, Minnesota. They recently earned their BFA from Columbia University in New York City. Cameron explores concepts of world-building and liminal space by way of Black, fantastical and precarious bodies using sculpture, film, photography, the written and the performed to engage and engulf a language of epics out of the minutiae.
Downey’s art has been exhibited by HAIR+NAILS in: HAIR+NAILS at 9 Herkimer (Brooklyn, 2019), FUTURE FUTURE (2020), “The Human Scale” at Rochester Art Center, and in their first solo show “Three Things Last Forever” (2020). Cameron will present their next solo show of new work at HAIR+NAILS in spring 2023. Downey guest curated HOLDING SPACE, an exhibition of video, image, light and sound, in the H+N frontyard (summer 2020). Cameron’s work was recently a part of “Wild Frictions” at Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien in Berlin (2021) and “Intersections” at Engage Projects in Chicago (2021-2).
“In some ways the show is about what I have learned about this building in the last six years, observations of how people move through it and how artwork lives within it. I am excited at the opportunity to contend with its nature once again. Using color, industrial materials, video, light and plants, this exhibition explores themes of architectural and biological space and structure, spontaneous methods of repair, as well as an overall consideration of the complex and likely unsustainable systems we are existentially dependent on. “ – Ryan Fontaine
Ryan Fontaine is a self-taught visual artist, gallerist and musician based in Minneapolis, MN. He co-directs HAIRandNAILS Contemporary Art, with partner Kristin Van Loon.