David Ryan, Crossing, 1998, oil, wax, canvas, 66 × 96 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
David Ryan’s work reminds one that while most contemporary art works like furniture—its inertia facilitating conversation on almost any topic (except art) that might go on around it—painting has to exceed its literal identity as an object if it is to be more than a critique of itself. Painted in London and perhaps inflected by the white and gray tonality of the north, Crossings(1998) is asymmetrically subdivided, with the larger area on the left, where sinuous light-brown lines run through a dark-brown field. On the right these colors alternate as the lines pass through a number of discontinuous and loosely aligned vertical rectangles, interacting with them to produce a gentle agitation which contrasts with the lines’ comparatively uninterrupted, languorous movements on the left. A blue, horizontal rectangle in the middle of the left hand and a red, vertical one at the center of the right hand part of the painting collectively reiterate the asymmetry of its subdivision, replicating in miniature, and intensified form the two shapes it produced. These are the only bright bits in the painting. Ryan paints in oil mixed with wax, making a surface that is tangible but seems to aim for thin layers filled with light, or not. Ryan paints not roughly, but very straightforwardly; this straightforwardness is combined in Crossings and other works with unfashionable interests such as motion’s access, through musicality, to the idea of reversibility, in the service of an understatement immediately recognizable as nothing of the sort.