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Bryan Ryley echoes Picasso with his Sum of Destructions

Liz Wylie

Capital News, December 30, 2009

Art lovers have only ten more days to visit the solo exhibition of works by Okanagan Valley-based artist Bryan Ryley on at the Kelowna Art Gallery. The show revolves around the notions of war and genocide, and the artist’s role in speaking out against atrocities. 

In 2004 Ryley noticed a reproduction in a magazine of one of the many sketches produced by Pablo Picasso in preparation for his famous 1937 anti-war painting Guernica. The drawing was of a hand grasping the hilt of a broken sword. He traced the sketch, then had it scanned and output onto sheets of large, good-quality drawing paper. These formed the matrixes for the series of works on paper in the current show, and he also produced a large diptych painting using the same image as its starting point, which is on view as well.

In the finished painting, Guernica, Picasso’s image of the hand gripping the broken sword belongs to a supine male who appears at the bottom of the composition, underneath the famous writhing horse. The man, near death, cries out in pain with an expression that could already be a rictus. The broken sword might represent defeat, but could also make reference to defiance and protest, no matter how futile.

Some of Ryley’s individual titles for his mixed-media works on paper give further clues to his thinking: for example, one is called Head in the Sand and has the text quickly written into the composition by the artist: “Pablo warned us.” Other titles include Negotiating Table, Between a Rock, and Pablo and Me. The theme or notion of taking on or collaborating with Picasso in this series of work is borne out in Ryley’s choice of title for the overall installation: Sum of Destructions. This is from a statement Picasso made in an interview in 1935, in which he said that the traditional way to make a painting was to move forward in stages. What he liked to do was destroy his first efforts in a work, treating images and completed sections as only beginnings, so the final work was a sum of destructions. Ryley has taken this to heart in his work in mixed media (including collage) on his paper and canvas supports. As a result, the underlying image of the hand grasping the sword is all but obliterated in most of the works. Splashes of colour, private symbols, bits of collage and pattern enliven the surfaces and create visual richness and complexity for the viewer.

This suite of works from 2004 stands as a kind of one-off in the overall context of Ryley’s career, but the vocabulary and style are the artist’s own. The artist invites us to consider with him the relevance of a work like Guernica today in thinking about our twenty-first century conflicts and wars. 

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