Thursday, August 2nd, 2007
Seeing the city from the window of a plane endows a certain godliness. Everything below us is happening at once: people stream down highways in their cars to emergencies or work or family, children jump into backyard pools with happy abandon, farmers steadily plow fields, crowds gather for baseball games. The view from a plane reminds us that countless events, occur in the same moment.
But that plane-endowed omnipresence comes at a cost. We are no longer intimately invested in the places we fly over. Even our own homes or workplaces seem foreign from the higher perspective. Everyone is anonymous, faceless. The planeview dehumanizes us, robs us of our identity.
Well, Kyle Ragsdale’s newest paintings have one-upped the plane window. He has taken the ubiquity of the porthole and endowed it with emotion and intimate placefulness.
When Kyle first showed me one of these new paintings, I knew I was looking at something special. They had a certain populist charm, with their Home Depot variant plywood and spilled house paint. But beneath the simple materials I saw an intense, complicated search for patterns among randomness, an overwhelming desire to make sense of seemingly unrelated circumstances.
These are landscape paintings, to be sure, as perhaps a tributary nod to the Hoosier tradition. Kyle also demonstrates a keen understanding of the role place plays in Midwest, and the significant degree to which it affects our lives and the choices we make. Place is so imminent in Kyle’s new art that it is three-dimensional. Lakes arise from the grains and knots of the plywood, which itself becomes the landscape’s flat plain. And like a schoolchild with a wooden desk, Kyle has entrenched chasms and obstacles and structures into the "canvas." I find it notable that Kyle has chosen not to hide these works behind the glass of a frame. I believe this is because his paintings are so topographically textured that they beg touch, interaction, even finger tracing.
Had Kyle stopped there he would have created something already interesting, a kind of randomized McNally-ian artmap. But Kyle went further, and used intuitive color combinations and calculated texture to add meaning to the randomness in the best form possible: a narrative. In Kyle’s painted stories, lovers are separated, friends enjoy each other’s company, and individuals wander aimlessly. But all of them are stuck in the flattened second dimension of the painting.
Meanwhile we look down upon them, from not only a third dimension’s perspective but also the fourth’s. We are granted special temporal vision that his characters do not possess. We see the beginning of the characters’ journeys, via their paths and footprints etched into the wood. We can see the characters’ obstacles, and whether the characters overcome those obstacles. Through these paintings we see relational sinews snake among the landscape, between separate events occurring in separate places at separate times. Simultaneously, Kyle’s paintings let us see the finality of relationships and actions. Like the planeview, we are omniscient.
These paintings are a kind of Rorschachian, geographical artistic experiment. Kyle has attempted to turn the arbitrary wood grain and paint spills into recognizable patterns, into people or rockets or animals or places. When I study Kyle’s paintings I find myself thinking about all kinds of questions: how much do landscape and place affect our decisions? How much do my choices rut into the wood of landscape? What is random, what is my own free will, and what is predestined for me? Or, more simply, how do I get from where I am to where I want to be?
His paintings are, in a sense, anti-abstract, a movement away from randomness and into purposeness. I think what he is doing here is to use paint to extract order from chaos. Maybe it is simpler than that, and Kyle is just trying to recognize it, as if to squint and catch it peripherally.
In some cases I think Kyle has succeeded, and in others he has failed. Sometimes the patterns are recognizable, and other times they are just paint spills to me. None of them ever really answer the questions they evoke. But if there is one thing I have learned from looking at Kyle’s paintings, it is that success and failing, knowing and not knowing, are as equally important. I am thankful for that.