A Conversation with Ryan Thayer Davis
Last week I introduced you to the three Austin-based artists that are exhibiting in my at-home, DIY gallery. While that show featured three painters of different stripes united under the banner of geometric abstraction, this week’s painter takes another approach entirely. Today, I want to introduce you to the vibrant work of another Texan, Ryan Thayer Davis.
This exhibition, titled Songs With Creature, is being hosted at Ivester Contemporary. This new space located on the east side of Austin has a variety of abstract painters in its roster of artists, so you will likely be hearing more about it in coming newsletters.
Walking into the gallery, it felt like a Crayola factory had exploded. There is a nostalgia factor involved with these paintings: color palettes and shapes that could transport you back thirty years, appropriate for a childhood like the artist’s own, growing up in the 90s. These paintings are bright and childlike with warm yellows, neon greens, and rosy pastels.
All of these paintings are packed with personality, from the smallest canvases to those five feet tall. And this exhibition was, in a sense, a long time coming. Every work featured in this show had been in development since 2015, and so they come from a similar fount of inspiration. Several of these works truly were five years in the making, with some completed just as recently as November 2020.
I got the chance to talk to Ryan over email, so read on below to find out more about how the artist came to create these incredible pieces.
“I always felt comfortable with abstract painting's ability to emote—not represent emotion, but to be emotion.”
First, I wanted a little background info. I was curious as to how Ryan came to abstract painting, and what led him to making paintings so full of color and energy?
“I think I have always been interested in abstract painting at some deep level. When I was a kid I never wanted to paint anything in the world. I was bad at it for one—faces and trees would always come out looking all "wrong," and that freaked me out. Representation is hard.”
“But I think more than that I always felt comfortable with abstract painting's ability to emote—not represent emotion, but to be emotion. That was the experience of painting in childhood.”
Over the course of his art education, Ryan transitioned through a variety of genres, like surrealism and modernism, before returning to focus more intently on abstraction. Mondrian was a key turning point, someone Ryan identified as an artist who preserved the emotive qualities of painting within his sometimes stark analytical abstractions.
Studying the evolution of Mondrian’s paintings helped Ryan with his own artistic evolution. And that journey brought him back to where he was as a kid. Ryan returned to abstract painting with his own brand of child-like exploration and boundless energy. After that, he says “I never looked back.”
“It’s the most indulgent, reckless, out of control painting I have made in a while, if not ever.”
The colors in Ryan’s works are what immediately catch your eye, but move closer and you’ll notice incredible textures. Discs of color protrude out from the canvas, improbably far. Layers of paint continue to dry in wild squiggles. On many of these canvases, the paint remains active. They will take months to dry, and fully set, if not longer.
In a show of paintings that are at times large in size but always large in spirit, there is one undeniable centerpiece. The painting Fjord Me Baby (pictured above), according to Ryan, “comes closest to representing all of the learning that happened” over his past five years of art making.
The painting began as a humble sketch, then transferred to canvas in thin layers of oil paint by hand. As he worked, the artist established several rules for himself to follow for the composition, and sought to be “as flippant and irreverent about color choices as I could.”
“The painting had its own momentum that could not be denied.”
While the lines and colors of this painting sing out from any distance, one again needs to move closer in to appreciate the varied textures on this canvas. Some elements are painted freehand, some are tightly masked and stenciled on to create sharp, crisp edges.
Although so many lines, rules, colors, and masking tape were brought to bear on this canvas, Ryan insists that “I don't think the piece represents everything I want to do in painting.” This painting is elaborate, complex, and it doesn’t hide that. Ryan tells me that this working method “pushed me to the max technically. But it is also the most indulgent, reckless, out of control painting I have made in a while, if not ever—it had license.”
To round out the interview I wanted to ask Ryan further questions about his process, and how he would go about his next series of works. Ryan told me that he usually has a big bunch of paintings in development at the same time, and that he desires to have “pretty much as many active canvases that can fit in my space.”
The dream for Ryan would be to have an enormous space full of paintings in progress that he could pick and choose from throughout his studio sessions. But in the real world, the artist has to devote his attention to a small handful of pieces, “and then sometimes a single painting can take all of my energy for quite a while.”
Ryan continued, “I'm stubborn, so if something irks me, I will battle it to the end, or at least to a point where I feel a particular problem has been resolved.”
“There is a point in every painting where so many beautiful possibilities are open to go forward…”
And what’s happening in the studio currently, now that all of these bright and beautiful pieces are hanging elsewhere? Ryan tells me that he has plans for a new grouping of work based on a set of drawings. He currently has 40 drawings hanging on his studio wall, which he will eventually translate onto 8 canvases.
However, this method does not always take Ryan where he wants to go. “Sometimes I'll just begin on a canvas, just because I want to, just because I miss that wide open freedom of beginning to paint and see where it takes me.
Ryan Thayer Davis received a BFA in Studio Art from the University of Texas at Austin in 2006. He lives in Austin, TX, and has attended residencies in Tennessee, Texas, Wyoming, and Iceland.
I hope you enjoyed this interview, painters. It was a delight being able to chat with Ryan, and I can’t wait to see what he paints next. If you are in the Austin area, you can visit this show by making an appointment on the gallery’s website
And finally, painters, here are your tunes for this week:
Braga Circuit - Get It
Braga Circuit - Work It Out
Akasha System - Sunbreather
Titeknots - Buzzard Walk
Madlib - Road of the Lonely Ones
Painting playlist by Lossapardo (opens in Spotify)
See you next time, and happy painting