The LA-born, New York-based artist Kathleen Ryan is known for her slick and succulent sculptures that employ a wide range of material—from cast concrete to hobbyist fruit—to coax and distort our sense of value and desire. Moldy lemons comprised of precious gems, defunct satellites made from mother of pearl and kitschy hobbyist fruit turned high art explore themes of decadence, obsession, lust and disgust.
Ryan riffs off the classical cliches of art history—think exotic fruit still lives and other displays of wealth immortalised in oil paint—melding them with contemporary anxieties of climate change, consumerism and nihilistic indulgence in an era defined by feelings of post-apocalyptic angst. Elephant catches up with the artist to discuss the themes of desire, decadence and decay that course through her works like a livewire.
AB (Alice Bucknell): Can you talk about your interests in contaminated nature and exploring the era of the anthropocene, particular in relationship to your work, Satellite in Repose?
KR (Kathleen Ryan): I like to think of that work as a skeleton of a satellite dish with its panels removed. Dozens of ceramic birds perch on the satellite’s frame but drip out of it; they’re infused within it. The birds are glazed with a cloudless, murky sunset gradient, a sort of post-apocalyptic mood, while the satellite dish points up to sky, drawing in the desaturated sunset that drips back down to earth. The birds are made out of clay, so it all returns to the earth in some sense.
When I was making this work, I was thinking a lot about technology’s ability to reach intangible energy—light, sound, communication—and how it the satellite dish is really tied to this ephemeral, intangible thing. But it’s very grounded by the earth as well, as if frozen in nature. Installed in Josh Lilley’s basement gallery, the work’s attempts to collect communication and life take on a new meaning, extending the cycle of energy passing from sky to earth even deeper.
This piece really represents the title of the show, Seven sculptures at sunset. Here I was thinking of the sunset as this frozen moment in between the life of day and death of night; all of these sculptures were somehow arrested in that moment of transition. The sunset, perhaps because it’s so fleeting, is viciously alive, all the sculptures have a lot of life and death—vibrating, buzzing like a hummingbird.
AB: What drew you to the bejeweled fruit that you use in Fountain of Youth, and where did you find them?
KR: Since I was a kid, I have obsessively frequented thrift stores, and a lot of work comes from things I find there. Years ago I started finding plastic pin bead fruits from the 60s and 70s and started buying them; eventually I had a small collection and realized I wanted to do something more interesting en masse. So I turned to eBay, where I discovered a seemingly endless supply. People were selling entire fruit bowls, however many hours of their labor. I spent a year obsessively hunting on eBay, I would say I made about 200 eBay purchases.
Sometimes they would come with little notes from their makers; I remember one batch came from an old lady who said she made them with her brother in 1959 and was happy they had a good home. I told her that the note really touched me, but I didn’t tell her, or anyone else, that I was using their fruit creations for art—mostly just because I hate writing emails—but I do think about it a lot, what might happen if everyone could see their old objects in their new life.
The thing that fascinated me about these hobbyist fruits is how generic but personal they were at the same time. They’re sold as kits of mass produced plastic fruit and a pack of beads and pins, and you bedazzle your own fruit by piercing the surface. It’s a really repetitive and meditative action. I was attracted to how anonymous and intimate they are at the same time, how hundreds of different people’s work collage into these objects—the density of anonymous people, the density of the surfaces. The objects are light and cheap but the surfaces are so painstakingly and densely embellished; the human action that went into these objects, even though they’re so fake, literally plastic encrusted in plastic, is what makes them so fascinating.
With Fountain of Youth, I realized when you pile up all that bejeweled plastic together, it ends up looking really juicy and plump. The fruit is cradled by a giant cast iron form modeled on the husk of a big seed pod of a palm tree in LA. This sculpted form is also reminiscent of a pincher, or a caliper. There is a satisfying contrast between the harsh sharp container and the bulging cornucopia of intensely artificial fruit. It spills and fills out the space, in which industry and nature are combined, as a frozen, swelling abundance preserved in plastic.
AB: A lot of your work plays with and challenges the viewer’s emotions and sense of value. What draws you to the line between what’s cheap and sacred, delectable and repulsive?
KR: The idea for the three lemon sculptures (Semi-Precious Bone, Fool's Mould, and Sour Pearls) actually came out of working with these hobbyist fruits. For all three works, the value is in the mold: the yellow parts are just glass beads, but the bits gone off are made from luxurious yet natural materials—crystals and semi-precious and precious gemstones; there’s also freshwater pearls and carved bone and coral beads.
All the works have something to do with mortality, like in vanitas painting. Ivy vines, shells, fruit, depicting decay and death and rot but are very much alive—fruit is dying, but mold is thriving, by using natural materials for the mold it has this energy to it that you can feel. They’re dying but also suspended in this buzzing aliveness.
The lemon trio actually mark the first time I put anything on a pedestal. And I really had no idea how to use a traditional pedestal at first; everything I’ve made before interacts with architecture or stands on its own. I considered other types of weird pedestals, after lots of trial and error, I decided it needed your standard contemporary art pedestal, but with proportions slightly smaller than the objects instead of slightly larger . I felt the theme of new life through decay was enhanced by the crypt-like nature of the gallery—not that I grew up going to many crypts in Los Angeles—but that basement gallery, with its arched ceilings, encouraged me to exhibit these works with death and the display of it firmly on my mind.
AB: How did growing up in LA and moving to New York influence your practice?
KR: I moved from LA to New York two years ago, and I’m still processing the differences between them. When I first moved away from California, I started to feel afraid of the environmental situation in LA in a way that you can’t feel when you live there—you kind of have to live in denial to function.. Knowing the city is literally built on top of the San Andreas Fault, that it’s supposed to go off at any time now, the drought and fire conditions we have now, all these major environmental issues that feed into the mythology of Los Angeles as this place built on intense hubris. LA knows it’s a constructed paradise, and its level of self-awareness makes it unique.
I don’t really understand the New York/LA divide—I think I’m too close to it to reflect on it properly. The big difference between the two cities that has influenced my work is the change in density. The work I was making before in LA had a few bold elements and materials, more simple gestures, maybe as a reflection on the sprawl, the intense light of the desert climate. For the show at Josh Lilley, which I made in New York, everything was made up of lots of little parts, they were still but had this frenetic energy from the density of thousands of little parts—similar to how you feel in New York.
I’m still rooted in my California girl upbringing—the nature stuff, palm trees, citrus and sunsets—as well as archetypes or references to classical and ancient work as a Hollywood re-interpretation: the Cleopatra set version of it, like a giant clamshell or Greek columns. The stuff coming out of me is coming from California but the density and energy is changing now after being in this crazy dense gritty dark place, the pace and the vibe, yearning for the stuff I grew up with—sunsets and waves and open faces.
AB: Is there any moralistic read to your work?
KR: Not really—I’m interested in how people relate to value, and my sculptures are a way of teasing out that relationship and playing with our sense of judgement. In a sense, my work can be read as a critique of wild consumerism and displays of wealth, but it also totally, happily indulges in it. The works are skeptical of the more is more attitude, and are also like, well fuck it, more is more. The works at Josh Lilly are maybe a bit more complicated in their decadence, while earlier works like a giant snake ring with crystal eyeballs and gigantic grape bunches made out of polished concrete are total exhibitionists, reveling in the decadence of this supposedly humble material.