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Colour and Movement Standing Still

Kristin Froneman

Morning Star, December 12, 2009

Anyone who has ever taken a subway train in, say, Toronto or New York will know the feeling –– the blurred snapshots of life as the train pulls from station to station. It’s the same feeling you get when looking at the one of the large canvasses created by Vernon artist Bryan Ryley.  

It’s as if the world is going by, while the person looking on is standing still.

And it’s exactly the effect the Commonage-based artist wanted when he was awarded a major commission to create two paintings for a new building in Calgary’s downtown core. You can now glimpse the work, titled C Train and Sun Meets Moon, as you go past the Bankers Court.

A long-time professor in the fine art departments at Okanagan University College and UBC-Okanagan, who is currently on leave, Ryley used his abstract ideals to engage viewers both within and outside the building.

One primary design goal was to create an inviting community space, drawing visitors to the building through the strategic placement of art, he said.  “It was (artist Willem) De Kooning who said that content is a glimpse, and my intent was to give people a glimpse.”

Ryley’s participation in the project came by fate after Via Partnerships of St. Louis, Mo., also responsible for commissioning artists for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, was hired by building owners Brookfield Properties and BcIMC Realty Corp. to put a call out for a painter and sculptor to do work for the Bankers Court lobby. (A 15-storey office tower with a highly-modern design, Bankers Court was recently recognized with Calgary’s prestigious 2009 Urban Architecture Award.) Invitations were sent to artists, agents and galleries to submit.  

Via Partnerships Emily Blumenfeld happened to come across the Paul Kuhn Gallery, a major gallery in Calgary which represents Ryley, and went inside. “Paul gave my catalogue to her,” said Ryley. “A committee was going over the selections, and they chose mine. I think it was ideal they chose a western Canadian artist.” The sculpture commission, in turn, went to New York’s internationally-known artist Beverly Pepper, who designed the 18-foot steel figure sculpture, Nuova Twist, which now sits outside the building’s entrance. Pepper turns 87 on Dec. 20 and once studied at Brooklyn’s prestigious Pratt Institute, where coincidently, Ryley received his masters in fine art in 1977. 

Born in Atlin and raised in Fernie and Lillooet, Ryley discovered his aptitude for art at a young age. “My mother saw me at 18 months with paper and crayons on the floor. I would spend two-to-three hours focussed on a drawing,” he said. 

Later majoring in art and literature at the University of Victoria before going to New York, Ryley continued to apply his philosophical, scientific and metaphysical beliefs, as well as his interest in indigenous cultures, to his art practice, later sharing his thoughts on abstraction with his students, but instilling in them a sense that what they create is inherent. “I call it systemic abstraction,” he said. “Things emerge as I work, and I can readily accept them, and if not, I can get rid of them. It’s a sum of destructions. You build by destroying and putting it in the past... You are negating in order to expose.”

A sabbatical in Mexico City in the early part of the decade allowed Ryley to explore his process even further. He watched as farmers holding torches and wearing masks bearing the likeness of then Mexican president Vicente Fox protested the government displacing farmers and selling their land to multi-nationals. With a camera, he watched as the traffic went by, barely noticing the protesters. “It was a great metaphor, with the figures standing there and the people going by and the fires burning. It started a movement. Free radicals create change,” he said.

That, and other observations, also resulted in the major exhibition, Saltus, which was shown at the Vernon Public Art Gallery in 2007, and resulted in a published catalogue, with the help of curator Lubos Culen, a former student of Ryley’s. 

To create his Bankers Court creations, Ryley sat down to work on paper, thinking about the architecture of the building, “Because of the columns –– and these big sheets of glass between them –– I thought of what you would be seeing in between the columns. That feeling of movement brought me back to Mexico City,” he said, adding how he no longer uses a brush, but instead pulls the paint with a squeegee as it deposits the paint in place.

 “Sun Meets Moon shows movement as a thought,” he said. “It’s an aerial view of the Prairies and applies some of the myths and stories of the indigenous people in the area. “C Train is more figurative. It’s based on the light rapid transit system in Calgary. It’s like you are standing on the platform watching as everything is going by.”

With a plan to install the 2.6-by-3.8-metre (102-by-150-inch) paintings July 1, Ryley was confronted with a dilemma when it came to moving them outside of his studio.  They were too big, and also weighed 300-pounds each due to the plywood backing and wooden frames. “I had to cut the door to my studio and the beams to walk the canvas through,” he said.  Ryley also received help from Vernon Moving and Storage relocation consultant Tremel Lambrecht, who, along with a team of eight people, transported the paintings into the truck, with a driver then taking them to Calgary. “Tremel became interested in the project, and this young fellow from his team said he was honored to be part of the project. They took so much care. It was like they were moving the royal jewels,” said Ryley. It took more men to drill 18-inch holes into the Bankers Court’s travertine marble walls and concrete backing. “It took two days to install the paintings,” said Ryley. “The people in construction love to get involved in projects that are different. They take great care if they see how much work you put in. They also respect that you are a maker and builder of things.”

With the commissions now in place for the world to see, Ryley is embarking on a few other projects. He currently has an exhibition up at the Kelowna Art Gallery, entitled Sum of Destructions, and is also working, along with his wife Margaret, to have his sculpture commissioned for Vernon’s centennial, located at the front of Vernon Watson House, illuminated.


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