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I ran into Dan Flavin the other day. He was hanging with Kenneth Noland and Donald Judd in the same gallery as me. I stopped and exchanged niceties: Dan was very warm, Kenneth a little straight, and Donald kept repeating himself. We talked about Australian art and Giles Ryder’s recent show ‘Lightworks’. They all said it looked familiar to them but also somehow different. I agreed.
Assisted readymades of found neon assembled on horizontal and vertical monochromatic surfaces, straight monochromes with highly reflective surfaces, fluoro window tints, stereo paintings and above all the pervasive glow of light, Ryder’s Lightworks was at once a trip down memory lane and a brave step forward. Giles Ryder has seen it all before, and so have we. So it is no surprise that his work looks a lot like a lot of other things: everything from early European modernism to American abstraction, to our very own conceptual post-modernism. The difference between the work he resembles and the work he produces is one of attitude.
While there is an extensive art historical ancestry to Ryder’s neon lights, stripe paintings and reflective monochromes, the distinction is to be found in the way he handles these surfaces and intends them to be seen. Not just in terms of their technical application—although Ryder’s history as an industrial painter is of particular note—but also in the way these surfaces are influenced by, and influence, their surroundings. Ryder actually paints and hand-rolls these lustrous machine-finished panels himself instead of outsourcing, thus the work embodies more of the authorship of expressionism than the objecthood of minimalism (although occasionally the demands of the work do necessitate industrial assistance). Perhaps this craftsmanship accounts for the rapport one feels in the presence of his work compared to the sinister ‘lying in wait’ of minimalism.
Ryder’s reflective surfaces and neon lighting also depend upon their specific context much more than, and in a different way to, the vacuum-sealed modernism Flavin, Noland and Judd represent. While their work depended on context, it was generally the white cube experience they relied upon. Ryder however is far more domestic and familiar: the relationship he sets up is of conversation rather than confrontation. (The bouncing back and forth between two sides is clearly in evidence in the bilateral composition of the stereo paintings.) Likewise, Ryder does not so much treat his surface as an abstract discursive plane, one upon which to play out just one side of countless political, critical or philosophical debates, but rather as a field of local possibility—a plane of exchange and influence, of subtlety and prevalence, of the desire to meaningfully engage with others—that refers as much to the formal attributes of the work as to its communicative dimension.
The significance of communication is further evinced by Ryder’s use of neon signage—designed to be as eye-catching and instantly communicative as possible—although he uses these fragments in an abstract and gestural manner: more like slang than formal articulation. And, arguably, he is more interested in perlocution and the peripheral effects of these utterances than in their dominant interpretation. Within language these effects include inference, puns and connotation, while in formal terms they include reflection and the suffusion and intermingling of light alongside myriad other optical properties and phenomena.
Ryder’s interest in working these things out on canvas, so to speak, is proof of his dedication to a kind of formal and technical apprenticeship where learning by doing is central. Despite the professional finish of his paintings, made possible thanks to his commercial experience, they are far from preordained formulas, and retain an element of exploration and process. ‘I don’t want to make pictures’, Mondrian once said in response to a visitor’s surprised comment that he was still working on the same canvas, ‘I want to find things out’. In Ryder’s practice, the undulations of imperfect reflective surfaces, the slightly raised patches where planes of colour overlap, the unique particularities of the soft edges and the sparkling surface of certain areas are testament to this.
Ryder is part of a generation that now seems to find it necessary to rediscover the practical skills taken for granted by the previous generation which rebelled against them. It is actually refreshing to see formal experimentation and an interest in things like surface, space and composition once again after the seemingly endless tide of haphazard video documentation and poorly executed collage-painting. Of course, drawing is painting and video is drawing and photography is video and so on, but how many art school graduates have we seen who cannot paint (let alone film or draw)? Ryder trades less on the already-done than on reinvigorating a tradition on the brink, reincorporating the lessons of formalism in the contemporary context and rephrasing its terms into the inexhaustible domain of the conversational.
And so we find Ryder playing with hard and soft edges, industrial and handmade surfaces, found objects and assembled compositions, natural light and commercial neon residues, all handled with a backyard mechanic’s feeling for touch. It feels more homemade, like a recipe made without measurements, as opposed to the identical units of mass-produced, factory-line assembly. Take Ryder’s neon Perspex sheet placed in front of a tiled glass-brick window of the gallery, entitled Plastic Sunshine for an Interior Garden (2007), a last-minute addition to the show that, quite fittingly, had to be held in place with Blu-Tack. Despite the industrial aspect of its construction, and the commercial branding of the artist’s initials, this work effectively, if clumsily, provides exactly what its title alludes to: artificial ambiance for an interior on a distinctly domestic scale, a fact emphasised by the converted living spaces of the gallery. The distance between high art and real life is shortened considerably by these works.
What Ryder is selling here is not an artwork or an experience but a different way of seeing the world, one that is not cold, indifferent and overly-intellectualised, but warm, engaging and colloquial. Beyond a sheet of Perspex with an appended signature, the viewer receives an entirely different outlook on the familiar, and, as with the found neon, a form of re-evaluation takes place whereby the recognisable is reconfigured into a kind of open-ended possibility. The same effect is then produced for the artworld, where everything old can be new again, it just depends on the light in which you see it.