Don't Feed the Artist 

click to enlarge art34_art_ryan_mclenneon_100.jpg

I met Ryan McLennan at an ADA Gallery opening in January. His work is intense. The white backgrounds of his canvases are spotted with the brown hues of forest animals, among them a recurring cast of mammals: moose, raccoons and deer. Each canvas holds a different scene. Each is fascinating. But these are not straightforward depictions of forest species. The animals are pawing, eating, rending the limbs from hollow foliage in the form of woven bears. McLennan calls them Leaf Bears.

Like his paintings, McLennan, is engaging and instantly likeable. His work first climbed the walls of None Such and Chop Suey, but now it's climbing further. He recently had work in a group show at 31 Grand in New York, and in December he's going to Art Basel Miami Beach. There's more to come: In January there's a gallery show in Los Angeles and a group show at Randolph-Macon's Flippo Gallery next March.

McLennan, 26, grew up in the small town of West Point. When I catch up with him, he's wearing a dirty white T-shirt in an immaculate little apartment-studio, where he's been pawing at his craft and savoring the new art he's found and the exposure he's getting for it.

Style: Before the Leaf Bears you were painting abstract paintings. Tell me about the abstract series.

McLennan: There were a couple things between the abstract paintings I was doing and the Bear paintings. Some friends and I, we had a studio on Broad Street that's now Quirk Gallery. … I was in there a little more than a year. My friend Chris Carroll was there for at least a year and a half, I think. That was when I first got back into painting after finishing college. And I just picked up where I left off when I was in school, as far as the same materials: water, powder, graphite -- what I still had laying around. You know, I was just getting back into it -- I didn't go back to the store and buy a bunch of stuff. I was continuing from what I had been doing about a year before that.

A lot of those paintings were more involved with the process and experimenting with materials -- mixing the graphite and ink with the water and polyurethane. I think it was just the space we were in. It was an old, dirty warehouse, and nothing really mattered about the floor. We were staying up late and hanging out and painting together. The thought process was more spontaneous. Making those abstract paintings, pouring paint, kind of like the movements of Pollock paintings. Although I wasn't interested in Jackson Pollock's painting so much. Same idea. But it was still sparse. There was a lot of white background that I still leave in my paintings. I wasn't completely covering the canvas.

And you got bored with it?

I got bored with it. I felt like I was just limiting myself to those materials. I was done with the process of it and I lost interest. About that time we were moving out of that place. I wouldn't make any paintings like that again. Those had to do with the environment and who was around. They were specific to that place.

Then there was a transitional style at some point.

Yeah, and just as we were moving out of that studio, I did start to incorporate some drawing into that. And cutting. I was painting on Masonite boards. I was starting to draw on it, and then carve into the board and rub ink and paint into it instead of using a brush, kind of like an etching plate. I drew all the time when I was a kid. I was always drawing animals and dinosaurs. I got out of it when I went to school. I felt pressure to not do that. Being around a lot of people who were painting and starting to see a lot of new painting, and I was thinking, well, why am I making these drawings of animals? I wanted to experiment with other types of painting. And once I was out of school and painting and didn't have those kinds of critiques anymore and didn't have the same people around, I still enjoyed drawing animals.

So the animals came back?

So they came back. The first one I did with scratchy outline drawings. I was drawing penguins and turtles and stuff. It was just to try to start adding more to the abstract paintings I was doing, to try to have something a little bit more recognizable, to just start drawing again. So I started to incorporate that -- and a few elephants, too. And the same problem came up again. I didn't have any real direction with it. I felt like that wasn't going anywhere. That's when I switched and started a new series -- large, elaborate, sort of crumbling landscapes.

They're very dense.

Yeah, they're large paintings with lots of small drawing details. I started doing that because I wanted to abandon the abstract elements. I just wanted to get back into drawings. I was looking at a couple of artists, including Matthew Ritchie. And that's what inspired me to start doing that. … As far as the imagery, a lot of it was thrown together. And then the topiary animals. I'd been looking at pictures of whale skeletons, and I really wanted to paint them. I painted those and it was too sparse, so I filled all the whale skeletons with sacks of ivy and the animals came out of that.

In the Leaf Bear series, you limit the animals to North American mammals?

About the same time I started doing those drawings, I was hiking a lot -- the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive. I never saw any raccoons. I see a lot of raccoons in Richmond. I had seen a lot of deer and a couple of bears, and I was becoming more interested in wanting to see those animals. I haven't gone outside those animals because I'm not -- I think I definitely eventually could -- but I don't think I'm finished with them.

You're still researching? You're still refreshing this series?

I made a lot of these paintings and drawings before I actually started reading anything about them. When I first started painting the animals, it was all done from memory, from my idea of what the animals look like. For the first year, you know, it was pretty cartoony-looking. Really simple. If you look closely at the deer, it looks more like a dog than a deer. What started really refreshing it was finding references and looking up pictures and trying to take some of my own pictures and using them to put a little more realism into it. So it was like I started over again.

The compositions are figures of animals. Do you take any cues in the composition of the figures?

Yeah. From nature books. From scientific illustrations. … It's really interesting to see some of those old drawings of animals like a tiger, but the artist has never actually seen one before. It's their idea of a tiger. I'm interested in that. … I have a book of the painter Edward Hicks. And he made one painting over and over again. Mid-1800s. Lots of animals. They look more ridiculous with each painting. The painting is called "Peaceable Kingdom." … As far as ideas and influence, it comes from a lot of things. It comes from the illustration aspect. It comes from reading, from learning about the animals, from their social behavior and eating habits, their routine and daily life. They're on a cycle: It repeats between mating season, and preparing for mating season and dealing with winter.

I'm fascinated by the multiplicity of narratives, or possibility of different explanations that viewers can interpret in these paintings. When people see these paintings, how do they react? What do they read into it that you're not necessarily painting?

People said that they talked to some people who overheard people looking at the pictures and they said, "Well, that bear is covered in bees. And the deer is eating the bees off because the bear is covered in honey." … You know, people take from it what they will. I'm not painting bees. Maybe I'm doing a bad job of painting leaves. But if that's what they get out of it, that's what they get out of it. And if I'm not there to tell them otherwise, that's what they're going to think. I have no control over that.

And you don't have a problem with that?

The only problem I have with that is maybe I should paint leaves better.

Did you have a style that developed in your time at VCU?

You know, the whole time through college, it was kind of a progression. I was drawing a bunch of insect wings and turtle shells. But then it was like, why am I drawing bugs? So I went into busy paintings. Really busy, colorful wood panels of explosions of shells and wings and debris and stuff like that, all floating around. I went from that into making abstract paintings of organic, fungal forms.

Around McLennan's neat, tidy apartment-studio the work of friends is carefully hung. Among the paintings and drawings are work by Richmond artists Tyler Thomas, Chris Carroll, Tim Carroll, Adam Juresko and Dan Owen. Though he comes across as self-sufficient and self-confident (if a little bit reserved), he is equally well-informed and well-connected to contemporary American art and the Richmond scene.

There are a couple of contemporary artists you credit with influencing your art: Amy Cutler and Walton Ford. What do you get from Amy Cutler?

Just the aesthetic. Just what's been put into it is all that's important. I don't feel the need for a whole background. And that's what a lot of her scenes, paintings, seem to be. There's the story. There's the idea. Anything else to fill in the scene is irrelevant to it. It's striking. It stands out. That's what I get from it, and I feel the same way. There's just a stark white background with the one single action or scene that's happening.

And Walton Ford?

Walton Ford, just the way he paints. It's attractive the same way I think Audubon paintings are really beautiful to look at.

Apart from those two artists, Ford and Cutler, who are you fascinated with? Who are you watching?

A couple of artists that I've found, Josh Keyes is one. He lives in the San Francisco area. And there's Amy Ross, who lives in Boston. They're both painters and very similar to the stuff that I'm doing. Or my stuff is very similar to the stuff that they're doing. But I'm coming across them as I've been working this way for a little bit. Amy Ross's work is usually watercolors and ink and maybe some acrylic. Josh Keyes paints with acrylic paint and also uses colored pencils. Looking at them, it's the same ... again with the stark white background, and they both do a lot of stuff with animals. So I keep in communication with both of them.

What people in Richmond are having an impact on your career so far?

A lot. Friends that I have in the city, people that inspire me. Not to make certain paintings I do, but I know so many people in the city who are active and involved in the art and music community. Having a lot of inspiring people around makes me want to do something too. To continue. … My friend Melissa [Roberts] does None Such on Grace Street. [Chop Suey Books owner] Ward [Tefft]'s got the bookstore with a gallery upstairs. I've shown my work in both those places, and they've been really helpful, really great. ADA Gallery was a tremendous help. RVA Magazine and Gallery5. The first couple of times I showed work in Richmond were at Ipanema and 821 Cafe.

Can you talk a little bit about the art scene and the music scene? How much of an overlap of those communities is there?

There are so many people in bands here and people in bands have friends who do artwork for their bands. Or spaces that show artwork have bands play. It has been very intertwined between a lot of people I know. … I think a lot goes on in this city that gets overlooked. Most people going to the Artwalk or older galleries don't go to openings at None Such. Maybe they are intimidated by the younger crowd, but they shouldn't be. They're missing out on a lot of exciting and new artwork. The art scene here seems to be very separated. I feel like people who go to Reynolds Gallery don't go into ADA. Maybe it's like that in every city?

What bands do you see?

A lot of bands in this city. Pink Razors, Brainworms, Triple Twins, David Shultz and The Skyline. Ultra Dolphins. There are so many. Anousheh Khalili, Josh Small, Liza Kate. Liza and her boyfriend Curtis, who plays with David Shultz, are both photographers. They recently had a show at None Such. Then there are the local record labels releasing albums for these bands and local artists doing covers. Then the bands play at the artists' openings. It goes on and on.

And all of that is integral to your artwork?


Among McLennan's close friends was Jon Zanin, or Jonny Z., whose recent death made headlines in Richmond and brought together the community of young musicians and artists to commemorate his life.

How well did you know Jonny Zanin?

I met him when I first moved here. We met that year, 1998. I met him through a couple of friends I made, and we played in a band together for almost two years [called] El-ahrairah. And, uh, I've been friends with him ever since. We had an art show together at Chop Suey last spring.

His recent death was a very significant event in art circles and music circles in Richmond. Can you explain to someone unfamiliar with those communities why his death was so significant?

Just because everybody knew him. He was always a part of something. He'd play in three bands at one time and work three jobs at one time and volunteer two places. He was always somewhere and always interested, always friendly and outgoing. He was a great person. I can't think of anybody who for any reason would dislike him or not want to be involved in something with him.

McLennan and I talk more about the Leaf Bears. But that work, because it's new and fresh, is a little more difficult for him to describe in succinct terms. He has distinct notions of subverting the predator-prey relationship and of keeping humans away from the painted eco-system. There's a delicate balance to the back story of the narratives (and he does call them "narratives") that come to life in the carefully prepared white paper atmospheres. Perhaps there's the magic: keeping some mystery, some vagueness, in the balance from which such wonderful stories can constantly blossom to the delight of McLennan, his friends and anyone who enjoys his art.

I opened the interview by asking you how you transitioned into the Leaf Bear series. If the Leaf Bears is a phase in your art, how do you imagine you'll evolve out of that series?

I don't know. I'm still working on it. I still have ideas. Even the mapping and the history and the future of them. I don't want to get out of it. It'll happen.

You seem very happy that that's not even an issue.

I'm content with what I'm doing right now. Yeah. S

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