Lisa Ryan’s striking collages deserve a close-up

In Lisa Ryan's "Island Issue" and "Won't Obey," magazine cuttings of color, texture and shape form thought-provoking images. Courtesy of the artist In Lisa Ryan’s “Island Issue” and “Won’t Obey,” magazine cuttings of color, texture and shape form thought-provoking images. Courtesy of the artist

see like an artist and think like a designer,” says Lisa Ryan about her stylish collages, on view in “Please Don’t Ask It Can’t Be Explained” at Studio IX. Unlike most collage artists, Ryan focuses on formal considerations, rather than narrative. Her work is fresh with an almost total lack of the whimsy that is present in so much of the oeuvre.

“I do find a lot of mainstream collage with that super surrealism just a little too easy and overdone,” Ryan says. “I want my work to be formally pleasing and able to hold up to a good painting.”

“Please Don’t Ask It Can’t Be Explained”
Studio IX
Through January 28

With collage you get two levels of perception. There’s the finished image and then there are the individual parts that compose it. Ryan plays with this adeptly, producing interesting juxtapositions of color, texture and shape. In “Tilda,” she used different body parts—arms and legs—to compose the cheek. From a distance, it reads as uniform flesh; it’s only when you get up close that you discover it is a composite.

Sourcing her clippings from vintage and modern magazines, all but five of the 23 works on exhibit use the former. The colors and images in these have a distinctive antique appearance, although the works themselves are unquestionably contemporary.

Ryan maintains an archive of paper cuttings carefully organized by category in plastic sleeves within an architect’s flat file. She laughingly admits that her relationship to these is akin to a hoarder’s but says possessing the collection makes her feel safe in that she knows she has a ready supply of images to draw from—yet she rarely does. Instead Ryan cuts fresh pieces for each collage. “It’s as if I’ve fallen in love with the pieces and don’t want to lose them,” she says. Her archive functions as an inspirational resource; she knows what she has and will look for new cuttings that are similar.

Ryan begins her working process by flipping through magazines. Figuring out what catches her attention is a mental and visual exercise. Her approach is much more granular than a typical magazine consumer’s as she zeroes in on details like a shadow on a face, a hue or a texture—in sourcing her raw materials, she repeatedly uses the word “hunt,” and it’s clearly a major part of the process. “I might have a slight idea of what I want, but the minute I start hunting, every magazine page I flip through is a potential option,” says Ryan. “I’ll hunt around and then I’ll decide, okay, I want something green. Do I want greenery—like a leaf? Do I want it to be recognizable, or is it just a swath of green. What color green? Do I want a bright green, or a dull green? That’s where the formal considerations come in. That’s the fun part for me—when I have an idea of where I’m going, but there’s still enough room for play.” Building up her collages piecemeal is a process of discovery. Each new addition of color, form and image is a response to what was put down before.

“Form and Shadow” looks like a watercolor or stain painting, and it’s not until you get really close to it that you see its petal-like shapes are composed of a series of magazine clippings of women’s cleavages. Using something as loaded as women’s breasts carries with it the frisson of sex and it might have skewed it too far in that direction, had it not been done so subtly, and with such strong composition.

Across the room, “Won’t Obey” features a blocky U shape and showcases Ryan’s interest in making collages that look like structures or that have a kinetic potential. She cut the shape from an image of fur and this imparts a wonderful textural quality to the work. “Island Issue,” one of a handful of Ryan’s works that contain a word, has a Precisionist vibe with its reductive composition and smoke stack-like element. In “Not a Shadow, but a Threat” Ryan uses a neutral palette of grays and browns that’s striking and sophisticated with a vintage feel. The folds and arms give the piece a graceful, gestural quality. There’s something ominous about the shrouded figure that is underscored by the title.

Ryan began her creative career as a poet and refers to her collages as visual poetry. “I have loved poetry and written poetry all my life,” she says. But when she “stumbled into collage,” it was “something that felt natural and seemed to flow out of me effortlessly, and has been so gratifying.”

Thanks to her presence on Instagram, Ryan’s work has been discovered. She has produced collages for Esquire, The Mockingbird and Paste Quarterly, and was featured in Collage Collective Co.’s 2016 publication, Green. In 2015, she was commissioned by YouTube to produce portraits of 15 of the site’s most popular stars for an in-house publication, and the project was an education of sorts. “One thing I’ve learned is that when a client selects you, they do so because they like your style,” Ryan says. “You need to give them what they want, but you also need be true to yourself.”   

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