Attention to Detail

Ronnie Rysz’s mixed-media paintings and block prints have graphic impact

Written by Hank Hoffman

Ronnie Rysz. Photo courtesy of the artist.

For Ronnie Rysz, developing as an artist sometimes involves un-learning as well as learning.

Rysz got a very traditional art education at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan and the Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts. At his Shelton Avenue studio during City-Wide Open Studios in 2010, he showed me a figure painting of a nude, heavyset woman – made in 2005, while he was still at college – along with examples of his current work. He told me the painting was done in a “progressive realist style.” It was accomplished but not striking. His work over the past few years, on the other hand, is notable for its personality, style, and graphic energy.

Rysz exhibits regularly and has a solo show slated for later this year at Real Art Ways in Hartford.

In an interview at his studio, I ask him how the evolution occurred. “I started to trust my hand a lot more and my beliefs in what art could be for me and what my natural tendencies were,” says Rysz. To do so, Rysz had to rebel to some extent against the conditioning of his traditional training.  “I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now if it wasn’t for that confidence and kind of rebellion,” he says.

He started drawing in elementary school but began taking art seriously in high school. Like many artists I speak with, Rysz “had a couple of good instructors who pushed me harder.” As a sophomore or junior in high school, he decided to make it a lifetime pursuit. “I kept reading about artists who did it their entire lives up till the day they died. I figured I wouldn’t get bored after I ‘retired,’” Rysz says, making the “quotes” gesture.

During his high school years, Rysz ventured as often as possible from his home in Stamford to New York City to spend days sketching and copying at the Frick Collection and Metropolitan Museum of Art. Although his tastes have changed dramatically since then, he says, early on his biggest influences were Baroque and Renaissance painters. “Rembrandt was huge to me when I was first getting serious about art,” recalls Rysz.

In recent years, Rysz’s primary focus has been on mixed-media paintings, which lean heavily on collage techniques, and prints. His work synthesizes a wide range of influences: WPA muralists like Thomas Hart Benton, German Expressionism, Frank Stella’s works on paper and bas-relief paintings, Pop Art master Roy Lichtenstein, graphic novelist Charles Burns, and others. Rysz concentrates his printmaking efforts on block prints – linoleum and wood. It’s partly a question of materials and access: He has “tons of paper and tons of linoleum and people keep giving me blocks of wood.” But his pleasure in the process plays a big part, also. “I enjoy the actual image-making and carving into things as a way of making marks,” he says.

Printmaking informs his other work. “How much I slow down and see and understand form when carving definitely helped me in all other aspects of my drawing and decisions about composition,” notes Rysz.  In fact, working with block prints after he graduated from college in 2006 – he had a residency at the Vermont Studio Center – played a large role in birthing his personal style.

The printmaking is a “subtractive” process. Rysz is working on “a very dark surface where all the marks already exist and subtracting surface from it” until he has the image he wants. His collage and painting work is mostly “additive,” although he often goes back and re-cuts things in the collages. Rysz describes his style as “very graphic, very obsessive compulsive.”

His mixed-media collages are particularly demanding; he estimates that a particular 8½”x11” work he shows me could take about 15 hours of work. They generally start with a pencil drawing, usually referencing photographic imagery of random models drawn from video or fi lm stills, advertising, and other sources. From the pencil sketches, Rysz develops black and white drawings. He builds up layers with cutouts, adding color palettes, embossing. Along with canvas and paper, his mixed-media paintings often incorporate wrapping paper, wallpaper, enamel and acrylic paints, industrial screening (which achieves a Lichtenstein-esque halftone effect), rhinestones, jewelry he’s found, and other found objects.

I ask him how he started incorporating the diverse materials into his imagery. Rysz says it was “a combination of just wanting to experiment with different papers. I’ve always been a collector of things, a collector of objects and materials. In the past, in my studio practice I always tried to keep things separate from my personal life as much as I could. I started incorporating my personal tendencies and obsessions into the studio. It made it easier not only to make the work I’m making now but also to have all my habits carry over into the studio.”

There are rolls of wrapping paper and wallpaper stored in his flat  file. He hoards a collection of plastic toy guns and a bandolier of toy bullets that serve as references for his linocuts and woodcuts.  Folders with images of subjects he might pursue fill a bookshelf in his studio. Rysz shows me one folder with iconic images of eagles that he collected for possible use in a series on war.  There are also strong formal reasons for using patterned papers.  According to Rysz, “It’s a lot easier to take care of patterns with materials that are already made. Even though I do render patterns myself, sometimes there’s no way to replicate an embossed, foiled paper with brilliant green color that’s iridescent. “I’m focusing in on little details all the time. My line work is very time consuming. I’m very physically close to the work as I’m doing it,” says Rysz. “There is a part of the process that’s very loose and gestural and I’ve tried to incorporate that more into the mark-making,” Rysz adds. When he refers to “mark-making,” he is speaking not just of his graphic brushwork but also the cutting away along modeling lines to reveal layers of color paper beneath the surface.

Rysz has been experimenting recently with ink drawings that, while consistent with his recent style, incorporate “more accidents, more washes. I’m moving away from the black line and the very opaqueness of that ink, using walnut ink, using some colored inks – a red ink I tried to match the color of my blood with, and got pretty close.” Rysz pricked his finger and dripped blood on a piece of white paper, then worked to match the color with red ink before the blood oxidized and turned brown. His experiment with blood-colored ink was inspired in part by the work of sculptor Marc Quinn, who incorporates his own blood into frozen cast sculptures of his head. “Lots of the images I was thinking about around the same time were images of war, images of decimated houses, destroyed communities. It’s a very literal reference but I wanted to experiment a little,” explains Rysz. Rysz characterizes these new drawings as “still very graphic looking but a little more playful, a little more honest. You can see the entire process, especially in the drawings on paper. I’m not trying to hide the marks I’m making and the different tools I’m using.”

His interest in image-making related to war is prompted, in part, by his full-time work as a prosthetics artist, a job he has held since mid-2009. Rysz meets with patients, sculpting in wax mirror images of their existing limbs. He matches skin tones and textures. He describes his work as “very hyper-realistic sculpture and assembly.” He sees about 30 to 40 patients a month, about one-third of whom have lost a limb or limbs in war. “We usually make the patient comfortable enough to discuss stories that are very in-depth, sometimes about the trauma they received to have the amputation, or amputations,” he tells me.

Rysz says he is hoping to glean some type of perspective from these conversations on “how to approach doing images about war and not have them be illustrations, not have them preach to the public about things they have already heard about – present images or sculptures in a way that may be gruesome but also be accessible for a broad audience.” One example is on his studio work table – a mannequin torso that Rysz has been painting. “I was thinking about the Belvedere Torso – the classical Greek sculpture that’s missing the head and both arms,” says Rysz. The Belvedere Torso also has legs truncated at each knee. Of his mannequin, Rysz says, “It’s supposed to represent one of those amputees from the military but even more so, someone who didn’t make it because of the decapitation.” The mannequin has an earth-tone red geometric camouflage pattern spreading out from the neck and arm cuts – blood – interspersed with rectangles of metallic gray and blue – shrapnel lodged in the flesh. “I wanted to apply the graphicness of the camouflage they have now – especially its digital looks – and particularly pick spots on the form and make these shapes. They could look like cuts or gashes or amputations,” says Rysz.

Rysz likes for his work to transcend mere illustration. His series Losing All Touch, exhibited a couple of years ago, dealt with the way digital media and social networking alienates individuals from the physical proximity of direct communication. His stylish, upscale figurative portraits depicted aloof and distracted individuals. Prints and collages of car crashes and sharks are metaphors for the economic crisis – stand-ins, respectively, for the market crash and the corporate titans who made out like bandits while millions of others were hurting. In one of the shark collages, a shark’s head breaks the water surface, mouth open and threatening. A swirl of thick lines on blue paper defi nes the water, cut in places to reveal green paper beneath. Rysz applied glitter nail polish to the shark’s teeth and stippling detail with a Micronpen. Drips of blue enamel polish comprise bubbles in the water and the shark’s eye is a rhinestone. “I debated long and hard about that,” Rysz says. “I wanted the shark’s eye to be completely dead but the shark fell back too much in the image.” The work’s title is “Thrusting Executive.” Rysz says, with a laugh, “I’m still very cynical, at least in the studio. I’ve gotten a lot better in my personal life.”

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