Ryan Mrozowski talks about his studio practice and the role painting plays within it.
Ryan Mrozowski’s A Mouth that Might Sing was the painter’s third solo show at Pierogi in Williamsburg. It was also his most diverse to date; filling the two galleries, Mrozowski’s new work included collage, video, drawing, and found paper objects. Still, the Brooklyn-based artist is, by his own definition, a painter at heart. Mrozowski sat down with me recently to discuss failure, the uncanny, and being a weirdo at the Strand.
Carmen Winant Your third solo show just closed at Pierogi. How has the work changed over the course of those exhibitions, or during the last several years with the gallery?
Ryan Mrozowski Those three shows happened over the course of four and a half years. My first show was in 2008, when I was a few years out of grad school at Pratt. I was still finding my voice as a painter, let alone as an artist. During the last four years, I’ve allowed the play in my studio practice to find its way to the gallery wall. And in that process, which is decidedly more open, other materials and mediums have found their way in. It has been a process of outward growth.
CW You are trained as a painter, and painted throughout undergrad and graduate school, and exclusively through your first several shows at Pierogi. This show, however, was varied in its media. Do you still think of yourself as a painter? Or at the very least, as making work informed by painting?
RM I do—I declare myself a painter! But my understanding of what that word means has shifted over the past five years. My practice has become more porous, and I now think in terms of material and process rather than medium specificity. I am less interested in the technicalities of painting than I am considering in how can I paint on, with, or about things.
CW Do you look at a lot of painting, then? Or, I should ask: to whom do you look for and draw inspiration?
RM I have a deep love and affection for painting, and for painters’ painters. I admire artists like James Hyde and John Baldassari, John Wesley, Rene Magritte, Ellsworth Kelly, Vija Celmins. When I think of artists I love, I always start with painters—it is sort of hard-wired, that kindred lineage. I also despise a lot of painting—can I say that here? But the stuff I love, I really love.
CW Across the newer work, there is an uncanny reoccurrence of doubling. I notice it in paintings like Bbiirrdd and Doppelganger, in your video, Palimpsest, which we will discuss later, and most obviously in the Illuminated book page series, in which you illuminate both sides of a single, illustrated book page with a hanging light bulb. Interestingly, several of your Pierogi press releases over time include the adjective “uncanny.” It’s a word so often misused, but is applied perfectly to your work and this quality I’m describing. There is a resulting cognitive dissonance effect that occurs in the pieces I named, and others . . . it’s not quite a mirroring effect, as the doubles are usually slightly off, or at least off register.
RM All of my work comes from an earnest attempt to make something specific, and inevitably falling short of that attempt. Or at least missing the mark. It is that process, those failed efforts, that leads to a kind of multiplicity in the work.
CW So, that kind of working methodology—that consistently missed mark—creates both a formal echo and a conceptual one.
RM Yes, completely. The Illuminated book pages, for instance, were arrived at by accident in the studio. I was working on collages that were terrible, which I knew. But out of that process emerged something more complicated and successful. That simple activity—shining a light, or reversing a page—I am also interested in applying that kind of elemental language to painting. That was how I came to make works like Pelican and Stacked Portrait—by forcing two images to coexist in a single plane. So that is another way to think about this “doubling” effect.
CW Hearing you talk about failure—intentional, non-intentional, or somewhere in-between—I was recalling your paintings Dog and Molecule, which picture floating, dismembered dogs. Of all your work, those paintings reminded me most of the Magritte and Baldassari influence you cited earlier. Your press release describes such work as “banal surrealism,” which seems on point; they are at once conventional and phantasmagoric, droll and upsetting. That’s a thin line to walk.
RM I think I should thank you for that! I’m always trying to take silly things and treat them very seriously, and the other way around. There is an effort to be willfully contradictory for most artists—certainly in my work.
CW That is really evident your video, Palimpsest, which is drawn from footage of 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, right?
RM Yes, which was filmed near my house, in rural Pennsylvania. Some of our neighbors appeared as zombies. It’s a movie of which I have deep, strange memories from watching as a kid with my father.
CW Night of the Living Dead is for me the epitome of cult, pop-horror cinema. But your video, for lack of a better word, is quite artful, and lacks any real narrative or climax. It’s really evocative and sort of bewitching. You mentioned the disconnect between serious and non-serious subject matter, and I get the feeling that much of your source material is drawn from popular imagery. Is that true, and if so, do you feel connected to that domain?
RM I actively am trying to wear down my source material and dispose of any context or quotable information. It’s really not important to me for viewers to identify what snippet of a film I’m using. To that end, I try to obscure my sources even from myself. After cutting images out of books and magazines, I’ll throw them away. Perhaps this is how I define something as my own—by plucking it out of a vast sea of information and personalizing it through a process of decontextualization.
CW Where do you initially find the sources that you then dispose of? For instance, where do the pages for your Illuminated book pages come from?
RM I’m one of the weirdos hanging out for hours at Strand. But I know I can go there and gather a stack of books, holding up pages to the light without being bothered. Middle-aged men in sweatpants and headphones are always jostling me, but I am part of that. [The] Strand is my office. I am part of the tribe.
Carmen Winant is an artist and arts writer living and working in Brooklyn, New York. Winant is a graduate of UCLA, where she received her BA in 2006, and California College of the Arts, where she earned Masters degrees in Fine Art and Visual and Critical Studies. In addition to BOMBlog, Winant is a regular contributor to Frieze, WAX, and Aperture magazines, X-TRA and Dossier Journals, as well as Artforum.com, Daily Serving and The Believer blog. Winant writes about visual culture and sometimes sports.