A Look at Life

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The Art of Kate Ryan

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by Steve Desroches

Top Image: Skips (Detail)

Like most every artist Kate Ryan finds inspiration all around her. But what distinguishes Ryan, and her work, is both her eye and technique for presenting the beauty of the mundane and ordinary objects and infusing her paintings with the emotion of memory and the vibrancy of an artist with a firm grip on the medium while staying open to the element of surprise. When walking around Provincetown she finds the old tire air pump hose at Fay’s Auto and a screen door on Franklin Street compelling. And she’ll make sketches, maybe take a photo or two, while committing it to memory, not necessarily literally, but definitely the feelings she encountered. It’s what makes her oil paintings vibrate with nostalgia, but not overwhelmed with the weight of remembrance as they also have an immediacy that connects the vintage to today, acknowledging that history is all about the now.

Recline, 2018, Oil on Panel, 12×12

Consider Recline, a painting of a vintage green and white, folding, aluminum lounge chair. Common in middle class suburbs of the 1960s the chair is on cracked fading black asphalt with a garden hose half in an orderly coil with the rest tossed on the ground. The shadows of the short shrubbery indicate the height of a July day with the heat bearing down producing what Joni Mitchell called “the hissing of summer lawns.” There’s no one in sight, or even an indication that someone has been there since dropping the hose in its place. But there’s a narrative for sure. One that evokes strong recollection for those that recall the scratchiness of the plastic fibers woven together to create the chair and an instant further inquiry into the subject for those that don’t, or came from wealthier locales where such lawn furniture had cushions. There’s a lot going on.

“Even though I’m not painting people I think they’re portraits of sorts,” says Ryan. “I try to give life to the still life.”

Born in 1958 in Quincy, Massachusetts, the focal point of many of her paintings is imagery quiet familiar to Baby Boomers. A box of the children’s game Tiddledy Winks or an Imperial Satellite camera. Even the lawn chair in question is indicative of the era. Ryan paints the environs of Provincetown, too, be it Captain Jack’s Wharf or a set of blue shutters from a classic Cape Cod house. What remains consistent is the optimism within each piece produced by color and brush stroke, but also the contemporary realism within which she allows for a touch of abstraction that adds an aura of the warm fuzz of reminiscence. There’s a certain drive and passion to document these inanimate objects before they disappear as time further drives them to obscurity, but through art the feeling remains.

Red Schwinn Stingray, 2019, Oil on Panel, 12×9

In addition to painting on small canvases that draw people in, Ryan also captures a device used in the golden era of American illustration. She’ll thumb through back issues of Look and Life magazines and she’ll notice the advertisements for Corn Flakes or a Ford Mustang and that the illustrators simplified the images so most all of the attention goes to the product. These midcentury ads took away the trappings of real life. No sink full of dishes or crying babies in a home life scene and no traffic or crowded parking lot to push the hottest cars of Detroit. There was just a simplistic, quiet elegance that tuned out the noise of real life.

“I think that’s kind of how I paint,” says Ryan. “They’re saying ‘Buy this product’ and everything else around it is minimized. It’s stripped down. That’s what I do. I minimize down to what I want the viewer to notice.”

That part of her process while she paints is perhaps where that blend of realism and the adjustment of imagery puts a breath of life into each painting. The precision of her work gives them an impression of a time and place that is less complicated, salvaging memory over reality. Each decade is of course full of tumult and conflict, but giving voice to those times, if you were lucky enough to have them, when life felt gentle and full of wonder, is the thread that ties all of Ryan’s paintings together. And in these particularly hard times Ryan doubles down on excitement for better days ahead through capturing the relics of good days gone by.

In a Flash, 2021, Oil on Panel, 10×10

Ryan moved to Provincetown in 2002. While she received a degree in art from Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts, she largely considers herself self-taught at this point in her life as an artist. While the core of the narrative of much of her work may go back to her childhood in Quincy where she grew up in a family of eight, Provincetown adds a luster to each piece. As an active art colony for over a century Provincetown is still not short on inspiration. So what does Provincetown mean to her as an artist?

“That’s a big question, isn’t it,” says Ryan. “It’s a perfect place for me to land in, this place, which allows me to do what I do. Just the history of this place and art helps to keep it going. It’s such a supportive environment for artists. It allows me to do something I love for a living. I love to paint. I mean, I love the act of painting. Doing the work in a place like here just allows me to do it and keep learning more and more.”

Kate Ryan is represented by Kobalt Gallery, 366 Commercial St. and her work is currently on display as part of a group show titled Endless Summer through October 10. For more information call 617.893.0110 or visit kobaltgallery.com.