Guns and Gods: an Interview with Ryder Richards
Through April 17th, Roswell Museum and Art Center will be showing new works by Ryder Richards in an exhibition titled Conflicted. Ryder, who received his BFA in painting and drawing from Texas Tech in 2001, is currently a fellow at the RAiR program in Roswell, NM. Drawing equal inspiration from his upbringing and his travels through Europe, where he studied classical architecture and Renaissance sculpture, the work that Ryder has thus far produced at RAiR—the work on display in Conflicted—infuses Greek myths with Western ideologies. Guns and gods appear alongside one another.
I met Ryder for the first time over spring break. Inside the starkly white and spacious walls of his RAiR apartment, we talked till long after sundown. Our conversation ranged from McCarthy to collaboration. This week we revisited similar topics over email.
1. You draw with gunpowder; create with a tool that is typically used to destroy. In your mind where do violence and creation meet?
They meet in the act, the action of creation, just as they do in the act of destruction. The important thing is that creation and destruction are transformations, which is an action of violence against the nature of the status quo or the object. For instance, a piece of paper is pure until we decide to create and ruin it by drawing on it: we have just imposed our will onto the paper, defiling it. This is a form of violence no matter how beautiful or well-intentioned the result.
I would like to say a bit more on this: if all human creation is an imposition of human will onto materials or ideas or other people, then ideation in itself becomes a sort of violence, typically destroying in it’s efforts to create. The difference: to not define violence as pain or death, but instead, to recognize violence in every thought that allows us to manipulate (create) the world. In many ways, once this thought has taken place and action follows, a real thing exists and all other possibilities vanish. Is this also violence?—To steal the present moment of potential?
So, realizing violence exists in every act and is not necessarily evil, I have been attempting to come to peace with it. Using a violent medium like gunpowder simply increases the intensity of the issue until people take notice of it.
2. The concentration of your recent work has moved backwards in time. Rather than bullet casings and rifle barrels, you are now picturing Greek gods and goddesses. Why is that?
Good question. I suppose there are several reasons, but primarily guns are loaded. (Sorry, I had to.) There exists a contingent of people who can never see past the guns, either love them or hate them, which blinds these people to any ideas I may wish to address as they fill the work up with their own. Interestingly, my research on gun-usage and violence-rates in the South lead me to resources claiming a violent reputational pride had come over to America on boats from Europe. Underpinning all of this are classic stories of rape and slaughter involving Gods and warrior kings, whom are often glorified in large-scale sculptures. In particular, the trials of Hercules baffled me: a demi-god who does wrong and whose twelve acts of atonement involve killing and stealing. There are statues of him all over Europe. To think that guns or bullets have anything to do with personal violence is a failure to consider the deeper ramifications of mankind and culture.
Also, I am interested in the relationship between the artist portraying theatrical violence as an icon that is appropriated by the state as a symbol of power and proudly displayed. In our current culture, public works referencing violence or sex are often removed for fear they may heighten social moors—attempts to further separate ideology from reality, abstracting virility into geometric shapes. Yet, these classic pieces have an awesome beauty that is at odds with the proclaimed content, abstracting violence perfectly while in plain site.
3. You have regularly used Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Woman as a source image. How does the sculpture, and its history, tie in with the interests of your work?
Ah, yes, Rape of the Sabine has several stories behind it. In short, the artist was watching swirls of smoke rise and wished to create a timeless work to capture that movement. Deciding on a cycle of life where a young man steals away a girl from an older man, he carved a spectacular piece, which is promptly christened by the city as “Rape of the Sabine” to align it with a battle. Even more interesting is that Giambologna was essentially a Medici prisoner who was not allowed to leave Florence for fear that his skills would be put to use by another city state. What I draw from this is that Giambolgna was a slave to his skill, wishing to be spirited away, and every piece he undertook became warped by the political propaganda machine. However, he kept making seductively beautiful works, which only pressed him further into the service of the state’s agenda.
How does this tie to my work? I have been working for a while to straddle a line between making something so beautiful that it seduces the viewer, yet offering enough uncomfortable content that the viewer feels a conflict when viewing the piece. It is simply too easy to make pretty work, shocking work or tame minimal work. It is much trickier to subtly make people love something they don’t want to acknowledge. Giambolgna’s works are a masterful execution of this principle, and a warning to anyone that gets too good at it.
4. In Conflicted, you have taken some of your work off paper. Wooden figures hang from thin white walls—walls very similar to those you might find in a theater or film production—or rise from the tile floor. They cast vast shadows and are skeletal in their construction. Can you talk about them? How are they functioning in relation to your paper work?
The works are starting to take on that theatrical quality of Giambolgna, but I decided to pull it off in a very SouthWest style. Out here we flatten our icons. They become signs and figures on billboards or movie screens. However, the trade-off for these screens in the windy South is a series of complex structures that provide a utilitarian beauty, avoiding any trickery. Our heroes may not be carved in the round from marble, but neither are they Potemkin facades meant to fool. They are clearly a symbol only held aloft by brutish engineering.
As for the sculptural works tying in with the works on paper: When considering the nature of the flat hero with an industrial spin, I began looking at some Russian constructivist propaganda posters. It was interesting how a shadow was the symbol, often with a factory or the working class as a backdrop. And, of course, their political usage tied in with Giambologna’s propagandized artworks and the continued role of the arts as the state’s advertising hammer.
5. Cormac McCarthy is an influence of yours. Which works of his in particular speak to you? And why?
I remember talking a lot about Blood Meridian and The Border Trilogy concerning this exhibit. I clearly remember a portion of Blood Meridian where this pack of “lost” men commit massacres, and at one point, when they are undressing for bed in a barn, McCarthy speaks of a horse unable to gaze upon their purity. It is a purity of purpose, despite it being evil, that few will ever experience. McCarthy has a way of talking about men who follow through on being a man, often missing everything by maintaining their principles. Within the works is also this element of destiny, about how actions bring us to a point at which our principles are all that we have left, our defining characteristic. This uncommon brutality reminds me of hunting and the danger of the land. It reminds me that environmental determinism is paired closely with culture.
6. You grew up in New Mexico and West Texas, and as a boy frequently took hunting trips with your father. It seems to me your work is, in some ways, an interrogation of your upbringing. How would you respond?
Sure. It seems inevitable that the work would do that, yet I would hazard to say that the work is starting to talk about many things outside of my upbringing. I definitely did not care about the politics of socio-cultural power or the shaping of aesthetics by capitalist entrepreneurship when I was young. However, I did care about how to be a man. I wasn’t always good at it: one day you try to walk as if strapped and much later you actually have to sacrifice something. Until then, a youth of animal slaughter makes little sense. It was primarily a prolonged initiation of social doubt and lonely successes, but the bizarre practicalities of it grow a certain sense of responsible empathy.
There is authenticity in unpacking your childhood, no matter how many layers it’s swaddled in.