Ryder’s life and work have always held a place in my imagination. I can’t help but see him as a painter’s equivalent to Herman Melville….
Ryder’s “Moonlight” sticks with me.
Let’s step back and look at it whole. When we ‘re confronted by a painting there’s a continual back and forth. We step close to see its facture: how it was made. We step back to see it whole and take in its relationship with its surroundings: how it exists as an object in the world. This isn’t a method of analysis. It’s a conversation and to do our part we must be in motion. Not only physically, but mentally and emotionally. We need to be open to take-in and note how the painting strikes us.
We need to be nimble, and agile. We need to maintain our equilibrium and at the same time be ready to be moved. Even disturbed, thrown off-balance, by what we see.
Ryder’s painting, all his paintings, are small. This one is about 16“ x 18.” His works are both intimate and monumental. Their capacity to fill our attention is so much greater than their size would lead us to expect.
They are, this one, let’s get back to specifics! Is simple, direct, centered in its composition. Yet it is complex, nuanced, the result of layered discoveries. There is nothing here that has not been touched again and again in the making of this painting. No mark that remains as it was “intended.” What we see is deeply considered, but not controlled. We recognize that what we are looking at was arrived at, not conceived and then executed.
Much of its surface is thick with paint worked and reworked, layered. And then, there is that scrap of sail…. The mast, a dark line cut into the luminous sky, cuts across its flimsy fabric. Is it in front? Behind, and bleeding through? It takes some sorting out of the structure of the boat. A structure barely implied in the thick chiaroscuro, dark against light tends to dissolve form, before we realize, yes. The mast is in front. The sail flutters away behind it.
It carries in its thin wash of earth-tones, not only the lives and hopes of those aboard, but our own existence. Our own precarity, battered and frayed by the winds unceasing through the night. We might see ourselves in one of the barely indicated figures aboard, aft, at a helm that is not visible. Is there a rudder left at all? None can be seen and the boat rushes off downwind as though left to its own devices. Or, as the passenger? The crew? Is this figure bent in prayer? In sickness, mal-de-mer? What we discover is that it’s our life wrapped in that sail….
One great lesson in this painting is how paint is never anything more than paint. And, this clarity is what lets our experience of the painting broaden and deepen until it holds… everything.
Paint cleaves light and dark. It emanates warmth by contrasting it with coolness. Its surface is a skin, translucent, reflective…. Its arrangement stops the eye with an illusion of solidity or carries us into a deep space filled with light and air…. Its gestures establish movement, bring time into its imagery, carrying our eyes around its surface and into its depths….
Plasticity. Not just in the sense of modelling forms in space, but in a sense akin to the plasticity of our perception. In the way its work-ability over the course of its creation allows the layering of a coherence — in an active, verb-sense of the term — of discovery steering intent and arriving at what in the end is…. Fact.
This in some way touches on how such a painting has such a presence. It is created. Not via the illusion of “Genius!” But by being co-created. It’s as if…, no it is, that the universe has created it through the hands of its maker. It is another creature in our world. And, it demands our attention as a fellow creature. We stand in a space enlivened by its presence as much as we would be by any other living creature.
There is a miracle in this. In the way a painting conquers time. At least on a time-scale that seems long in relation to our own sense of time’s passing. It has concentrated the experiences happening in the time that went into its making and it then presents the result instantaneously, although again this instant unfolds and unfolds and has a duration that lasts as long as we can keep-up our side of the conversation. And, it remains. It stands there, dormant, waiting for the next encounter to awaken it. Awaken a new “us” between it and the next viewer.
It cannot be reduced. It resists our efforts to pin it down. If we insist we are the loser. Unlike a work that was the result of an untrammeled intention, an intention forced upon the work by an act of will to survive everything the act of painting has thrown at its maker. The refusal by its maker to learn anything by what they have seen as mere resistance to their will. Such a work poses itself as one thing: an allegory, a symbol, a… always pointing at something outside itself. Unsure of its own connection with everything it insists we take it as a sign of something beyond itself. Its value supposedly residing in its ability to point us at some result. Some lesson. A command? That we value it in the light of some greater authority it is intended to uphold. Such a work seems to know it’s a lie, but it seeks to hide this from us by whatever tricks its maker could summon forth and lay upon its surface.
Time is the enemy of such a work. If it lasts, the assumptions it was built upon and that it was intended to support die away and leave it unmasked. The lie is exposed by the ability of a painting to persist. In the end its truth does come into view. But as an exposure of a betrayal at its very heart.
Time has no such affect on this painting. As the assumptions of its time fade it only becomes stronger. Its vitality increased by the dropping of veils of occlusion.
Beginning this essay I thought to somehow describe the way this painting has come to … not depict, but embody what it means to navigate uncertainty. In the end, the only honest thing seemed to be to confront the painting anew and write about it as an experience of the possibilities painting invites us to join in.
Maker and consumer. These are the roles pushed on us by our prevailing assumptions. Both miss the mark. We are makers only if we abandon the potential vitality of joining in co-creation. As viewers we are reduced to consumers only if we refuse to accept the painting’s invitation to join it in conversation. In another kind of co-creation.
Maker and consumer are both trapped in reduced circumstances in situations that only perpetuate and cover-up the violence at the core of their beliefs. They remain trapped in time. Trapped in a linear equation insistently quantified. Stripped of qualities, quality.
In such a world hemmed in by the fragility of illusions covering up the lies at their hearts uncertainty can only be seen as an enemy. A burrowing creature, a nagging doubt gnawing at the heart of the enterprise.
Ryder’s “Moonlight” gives us a glimpse into another way of being.