Grand Arts Presents:
Ryan Mosley
Painting Séance


Painting Séance

Painting conjures. Sure, it can document, but its strength is in its primary plasticity, its infinite possibility, its total mutability. A painted world is its own world, a world apart from this one no matter how close its references or how real its sources. There is no opposition of real or imagined, only the reality (or anti-reality or surreality or proto-reality) of the painting itself. Because they’re visceral and visual, stubbornly asserting their own physicality and insisting upon our presence, they make us think and feel through our eyes, to simultaneously read content, apprehend form, process technique. Ryan Mosley conjures. He paints, yes, but more than that he summons the paradoxes of painting. He resolves to unsettle, he equalizes to imbalance, he defines to distort. He exploits painting’s possibility for ambiguity, for holding opposing states and creating another condition out of their coexistence. An increasingly confident painter, he is sure enough of himself to make things unsure. This uncertainty is found in the paintings, but also in his process, wherein he inserts obstructions that force his own hand, to push him into a dance between improvising and scripting, in form and in content.

Theater conjures. Like painting it builds worlds, it works in many dimensions to create its own reality—scripting, staging, acting. It may be more constrained by the physics of the real world, but it generates its own logic, conflating fact and fiction, traveling across time and space, asserting its own illusions and allusions. Allusions to performance abound in Mosley’s work—from stage plays and carnivals to minstrel shows and campfire sing-alongs. Cowboy crooners, buffoons, harlequins, and acrobats all appear, surrounded by theatrical accoutrement— instruments and masks, wigs, costumes, and props. But the theater is not just a subject of Mosley’s canvases, it forms a kind of underlying logic of process and presentation, a conflation of temporal, spatial, and narrative dimensions. Waiting for the Romance and Wild Brew channel theatricality directly.

Compositionally they feature the low, shallow horizon of a stage, with the top and sides functioning a bit like a proscenium. In both, there isn’t much depth—just enough for us to know that the figures sit upon this “stage” and in front of some backdrop. Waiting for the Romance is more dense, with four figures to complicate both the image and the narrative it conveys. Mosley scripts a purposeful ambiguity, gathering four characters who seem not to belong together. And Mosley does not paint subjects so much as he paints characters, who have arrived on the scene as refracted archetypes from art history and popular culture, albeit in spirit but not always hewing close in style. The girl with the umbrella alludes to Georges Seurat’s La Grande Jatte; the musician recalls Pablo Picasso’s Self-Portrait with Top Hat, the ubiquity of Georges Braque’s banjos, and the naivete of American folk painting; the woman on his right wears an afro and slinky dress, like 1970s icon Pam Grier; and the figure on the ground is contorted like Picasso’s Saltimbanques, the bottom half rendered in a Philip Gustonesque dysmorphia. These figures seem cast not only for the internal drama and ambiguity derived from their odd assembly, that is, as characters in relation to one another; but also for their symbolic potency, representing art historical styles and movements, related time periods, or implied social contexts. They are further framed by the cacti, a recurring motif for Mosley, and as much a character as any person.

This commingling operates in a few ways. The art historical references stack up (between this and other work, the list includes figures like Bellini, Vermeer, Goya, Ensor, Tiepolo, Gauguin, Picasso, Braque, Watteau, Gillray, and Guston, to name only some). These days, it would be impossible not to paint self-consciously, to acknowledge debts and influences, to knowingly wink and nod at forebearers, for this is part of the fun of painting, of inserting oneself into a history and conversation centuries old. But Mosley is not interested in such quotations for the gamesmanship alone; the references offer a patina of art history that functions to complicate notions of time for the painting as an object and as a subject. Like a play, the painting operates in different temporalities–there is the time in which the work is created and the time it represents, or in this case, by extension through the characters, the many times, and both of these are complicated by these stylistic maneuvers. Mosley revels in this multivalence; he creates something in the 21st century that holds the 19th and 20th centuries within it, and he aspires to a kind of timelessness that is oddly engendered by the play of style as a symbolic marker of time.

Mosley’s characters are symbolic markers for archetypes as well—we can imagine them as characters by conjuring the contexts from which they derive—a talented but unworldly acrobat, a 1970s vixen, a wizened folk musician, a French ingénue, perhaps. Each comes with its own possible backstory, and the pictorial space is infused with theatricality, where the psychic energy of performance is amplified and refracted by these symbolic associations. Much like theater, painting can serve as a translation of myth, history, and fantasy; in Waiting for the Romance these characters can converge from different points in history, but across Mosley’s body of work we see also how archetypes are reborn for each generation, for each locality. The musician could be a reincarnation of a sage leader, the afroed woman a goddess–suggesting that art and popular culture perpetuate these characters from myths and classic literature.

Composition plays a role in suggesting action and relation between characters, but also bears the traces of Mosley’s improvisational process. His paintings achieve a kind of unified ambiguity through the push and pull of form and content. He often works loosely from found images–if one qualifies forms “found” in the history of painting, or through Mosley’s diverse and intuitive research, or even derived from his vocabulary of repeated characters and idioms. And so a painting begins with this visual excerpt, and Mosley adds and subtracts, repaints and erases, inserts and edits, as forms appear and narratives are scripted. Unlike the theater, painting is a lone pursuit– there is no (immediate) audience, no actors or crew, there is only the painter and the painting. And so Mosley’s process makes the painting an agent in its own construction, becoming his improvisational partner, so in a sense he is acting with and against both himself and the painting. He makes a move, the painting responds, he replies, sometimes he adds a stumbling block for himself. And each formal or compositional move needs to be balanced narratively, so that the final result is both composed and spontaneous, specific and open.

Even the objects in Mosley’s paintings seem not merely anthropomorphized but rather characterized; Wild Brew’s cowboy turns away from a gramophone that seems to entreat his attention; the jugs on the floor transmute between vessels and heads. This phantasmagoria opens up even more possibilities for estrangement and uncertainty, the improvisation of their making mirrored by the improvisation of our viewing, channeling the multivalence at the heart of Mosley’s project. Modern Botany delivers another kind of perceptual multiplicity (also present in the smaller works Kansan Ouija and Crop Silhouette). The gestalt of these paintings are faces (mask-like perhaps), achieved through the arrangement of decorative motifs for eyes, mouths, whiskers, etc.; but this total form vacillates with an underlying quasi-symmetrical abstraction, and in the case of Modern Botany, intermittent representational elements that further confuse the state of total abstraction or figuration. Modern Botany is an obvious reference to Paul Klee’s Botanical Theater, itself a densely patterned (albeit nearly monochrome) amalgam of forms, from surreal to natural and in the spectrum between. The layer of imagery that floats on the surface of Modern Botany—a series of comma-shaped vegetal forms, a horizontally extended cactus, feels similarly activated as fantastical agents in an abstracted stage play—Mosley adds bottles and a wine glass—props of sorts; and with a nod to costuming, a cowboy hat tops one form.

Modern Botany is undoubtedly Mosley’s most surreal work in this group, and in some ways the most complex as it negotiates between pictorial coherence and incoherence, pattern and figure, abstraction and recognition. And while Mosley might be understood primarily as a figurative painter, this work bears witness to his interest in multiple conventions of painting, from still life to landscape, abstraction to figuration. Much like the combining of eras or characters, Mosley is crafting these paintings to self-consciously contain the multivalence of painting in form and content. And indeed, as the range of work in this group suggests, that simultaneity extends beyond the bounds of a single canvas. Across them all he cycles freely between genres, assembling en toto a kind of refracted ambiguity. In one painting a harlequin pattern may adorn its intended character, in another it transmutes to a pattern on cowboy boots, in yet another it is the pattern on a skull. Those boots appear in their rightful place on the feet of a cowboy, and also as surreal botanical appendages. Lords of the Frontier literalizes, in some sense, this transmutation of form to generate ambiguity, dispersing stylistic quotations across many works, rather than gathering them into one. This series of profile portraits is a conjuring of troops (or troupes as the case may be), each performing the permutations of character tuned from the archetype of a leader as it travels through time and space. The rondo form is the only constant, a reinforcement of power as a social performance (and its allusions to currency and official portraiture), and here Mosley most directly channels satire, a genre not to be left out of his arsenal.

Mosley’s “Painting Séance” is large and multifarious–he conjures styles, histories, myths, archetypes, geographies, painters, performers, paintings, eras, genres. These elements come from the past, but the paintings’ relationship to the pasts they conjure is complex—not simply nostalgic, but generative. Each referent works together, as Mosley crafts characters, directs the action, and dresses the stage with a kind of deliberate improvisation to produce scenes pregnant with their own narrative possibility while also alluding to the web of references he weaves across paintings. He stages his own narratives to drive a painting along, to imagine action between character and environment, symbol and gesture as he builds a composition, but he leaves a painting open enough for us to imagine Wild Brew’s cowboy performing in the moments before and after he is frozen in this scene, or to project dialogue for Waiting for Romance’s motley troupe. And so in the end, we build our own narratives from his stylistic cues, symbolic insertions, archetypal characterizations, temporal displacements; we act to conjure our world within his.

Elizabeth Thomas
Phyllis Wattis MATRIX Curator
Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive
Berkeley, California
June 2010



Back to top