Will Ryman: Dinner III
September 12 – November 21, 2020
This is Will Ryman’s first New York gallery exhibition in five years, and his first with CHART. An artist already well known internationally for his outdoor public sculpture commissions, his work is currently installed at LongHouse Reserve, East Hampton and at Art Omi Sculpture and Architecture Park in Ghent, New York. Ryman’s installation at CHART is intimate, contained as it is in a single, albeit large, room of a gallery. Such a scale makes for a feeling of intense estrangement from normalcy. This is enhanced by the gallery’s floor covering of a light absorbing black carpet over the usual polished wood. Formerly a playwright, Ryman applies a particular kind of philosophical and formal enquiry, rooted in his interest in the Theatre of the Absurd, to sculpture. From this basis Ryman seeks to examine and explore, with humor as well as seriousness, our existential search for meaning in a clearly indifferent, at best contingent, world.
Dinner III (2019–20) is a cast stainless steel tableau comprising four near life-size figures that diverge from anatomical precision to the point where they evoke psychological, disjunctive, and dream-like states through a recombination of conflicting proportion, scale and form, recalling the paintings of Salvador Dalí and Joan Miró. Whilst it is recognizably a gathering of figures for dinner, the representation evades any but the most generalized take on what is transpiring. One figure ends at standing height even though seated in a globe, an all-seeing disco ball reflecting its surroundings like a fish-eye lens or conversely a machine consciousness thought bubble. Everything is splintered, montaged, and joined in appearance because the sculpture is cast from many disparate, found objects—dinnerware, candle holders and candles, a book—and sculpted material unified in the cast of polished stainless steel that reflects the work itself, the room, or the viewer.
The whole ensemble is situated on a similarly cast parquet floor. Luis Buñuel’s surrealist film The Exterminating Angel [El ángel exterminador] (1962) comes to mind. In the film, guests arrive for a lavish meal and the next day find they are trapped, inexplicably unable to leave the house to which they had been invited. The narrative time of a sculptural dinner tableau is completely different from the unfolding of time in a film, though the sense of ambiguity and disturbing comic unease is comparable. In Ryman’s sculpture, time has paused or ceased, the figures trapped in one chaotic, unreal moment of troubling Alice in Wonderland dimensions. Is this a metaphor, a distorting mirror reflecting an unassuming state that masks meaningless as an absurd predicament?
Also at the table are two dogs. Three more are isolated away from the main tableau, one apparently at rest on a cushion, the other two standing, purposefully heading somewhere, as dogs often do even when it’s not at all clear where. The surface of all the dogs is like rope or roiling liquid, a sculpted texture that is more like computer generated animation than hair. The dogs are either on their way or waiting for scraps at the table or their next nap. They have no more agency over events than the frozen figures in Dinner III, but their docility reads as acceptance in contrast to the struggle and complexity of the other figures at the table, worse off thanks to their search for ontological relief or sensual fulfillment. The dogs have not stopped to question inner and outer worlds or the flow (is it a flow?) of time past or through them. Ryman is again exploring questions of existence, with philosophic surrealism, theater, and the crafting of material.