Anyone who didn't grow up in the suburbs knows someone who did. There is a common cultural vision of suburban reality, which is so pervasive as to stand in as an archetype of experience. Embedded in that landscape is a quintessentially American project, devised to accommodate the convenience of communal life without an urban underbelly. These plotted grids of domesticity boast an ordered cleanliness intended to foster the best of childhood memories. Ryan Travis Christian's work, showing at Western Exhibitions in Chicago from October 21 to December 3, filters that utopian worldview through a nasty tab of acid. Each graphite work on paper is its own eye suck, drawing you into a mesmerizing frame of stark lines and messy auras. Christian creates a process-ridden surface, often erased, redrawn and erased again. "The process is super responsive," he says, when asked about his process. "Tons of erasing and frowning is involved."
When one looks at his work, it's as if each line relives a story turned inside out by repetition. Christian recreates suburban vignettes like someone exposing the narrative of a teenage boy via images not text. "I definitely gravitate toward stories that are awkward, creepy, violent, sexual, or humorous." His is a black and white world with recognizable forms: houses, trees, cartoon smiles, marijuana leaves, breasts and record covers. The cartoon figures recall a Dust Bowl, Hairy Who nostalgia, appearing sinister and playful at once. Add to this his die-hard attachment to pencils, and you've got a show. "Pencils are what I've liked best," he says. "It's such an easy medium to manipulate. It's cheap, it's exact and it's dirty."
The exactness of Christian's imagery provokes questions as to its source. "Cartoons and geometric constructions are just something I latched onto growing up," he admits. "I was always enamored by cartoons' ability to portray everything we know in such a surreal and screwball fashion." It's an aesthetic that permeates the whole show. Round-eyed faces pepper the picture plane and the repeated lines that describe them become abstractly thematic in and of themselves. The shading is so precise as to create rhythms of light. In some places, figures deliberately drift out of focus, presenting a kind of double vision, shimmering and corrupt like a television left on late at night in an empty room. To that point, Christian explains, "the geometric patterns come from sinking a sad ten years of my life into playing Nintendo in the '80s and early '90s." But of course, it extends beyond that, because his iconic vocabulary is based on a longer consumer-list of desirable habits. These are the signs that populate American consciousness. Notes Christian: "You see the stuff everywhere, in advertising or clothing or road signs. I don't really view the patterning as psychedelic. I'm not trying to make 'trippy' drawings, but it can often have that effect.'
In an annex to his solo exhibition, Ryan Christian Travis is exhibiting collaborative work made with various artists like Scott Anderson, Cody Hudson, and Rachel Niffenegger. Here Christian's repertoire adjusts. "Every single collaboration requires a drastically different approach," he explains, when asked about this project. "I have a very certain way of working, and so does each individual artist. Trying to meld mediums or signature imagery or mark-making style kind of demands a sacrifice on my end and theirs as well." Color makes a distinct appearance--by which many of his collaborators distinguish their own contributions. Even with the complementary efforts, these varied participants remain distinct, playing off one another's strengths. "It's been really interesting to see how everyone respectively approaches a composition and attempts to solve the problem at hand."
These drawings are not safe, but they appropriate signs common to all of us, setting them in a stark suburban landscape of an indefinable past. In Christian's hands, icons are tugged and pulled and tweaked, playful and ruthless, seductive and banal.
"Ryan Travis Christian: The River Rats," and "RTC collaborates with... "was on view at Western Exhibitions in Chicago, from October 21 - December 3, 2011. www.westernexhibitions.com