Smackdown: Ryan Roa on raw combat in his working method
In the sculptures and installations of Ryan Roa raw industrial materials like steel, wood and rubber are often put through intense physical engagement and manipulation. A graduate of Hunter College, Roa is now based in Beacon, NY. A show of his new work, Stress Points, is on view through January 8 at gallery nine 5 on New York’s Lower East Side where he took time to discuss his latest work with me and the ideas behind it.
DARREN JONES: What is the subject matter that forms the basis of your practice?
RYAN ROA: I’m really much more focused on the act of making than the finished object, the interaction between my body and the materials. It is about that impact and what results when those two elements connect. The creation of the final form comes out of that.
The works here convey strain, physicality, even potentially violence. Yet your adherence to line and architectonic beauty of form makes for an immensely graceful, harmonious body of work. Can you discuss these quite different characteristics?
They are opposing but complementary. For instance in military tactics you begin with a formation but then it moves into calamitous or chaotic situations. So a lot of my work begins with a system often of refined and considered lines, plot and balance. I base this on physics, engineering, and consideration of what happens when two objects come into contact with each other and then separate again. It may be a simple mathematical principle based on the measurements of a sheet of expanded steel, or the points I set up to begin my geometric drawings, but when they are in place I can then detach from conscious decision making, and get down to a raw emotional state of reacting to the material. I liken it to a boxer stepping into the ring. You take your skill, your past training, but when the match begins you just go, and whatever happens, happens. The resulting object is the record of that process.
There is a working class, urban New Jersey bent to your character that embodies grit, perseverance and survival. There is a confidence that can even border on arrogance. It would all fit well into a Bruce Springsteen lyric [laughter]. And you’ve already mentioned the military and boxing. How much do your experiences and personal environment filter into your work?
Well I think that is true. A lot of times I say that I use my studio in the way that an athlete would use the gym for training, and later, the work comes to fruition when there is an exhibition, when it needs to be seen. So then when I am making my pieces in the gallery or museum I’ll often ask to be left alone in the space so that I can go through the exploration of creating the piece in solitude. And these character traits that you mention and my history and background do play into the process. There is an ongoing encounter, physically and emotionally, as I contemplate that relationship.
You have been filmed during the installation of your last two solo shows tussling with the work, getting cut, fighting with the medium as you pin it into place. You’re bleeding and tired at the end of it. Is there a competition going on here?
Yes, there is. There is in a sense a direct combat with the material where there is a push/pull and where we are sometimes working against each other. Neither side is willing to give, but then at times we are going in the same direction. There is energy and there is friction: the anvil on which my practice is forged.
There is the material, and you, but then there is a third element, the universal forces determining the state of all matter. Aren’t the unseen laws of physics also your medium?
Yeah. And to me it’s almost a metaphor for life, the way they surround us all the time. We are subject to scientific principles, mechanics, gravity, force, tension. And we aren’t always aware of it. For instance a car hitting you when you are checking you phone on a New York street. What happens then? Encountering something that impedes upon you and completely changes your day, your plan, or your life. So in my work I am trying to capture that uncertainty, that moment of possible unraveling, where the work is being held together, but the substance or matter could snap back and hit you in some unexpected way if it wasn’t secured. During the making of my work it is me who could be injured or affected in some way, so when that does happen I am almost a victim of what I am creating.
Or the viewer?
By the time it comes to an exhibition the work is secured and totally safe. I’d never have any intention of injuring anyone with the work.
Never? [laughter]. Wouldn’t that be the resolution of the work. The final act of what you are doing, to move from potential to actual connection, literal not metaphorical contact with the viewer?
Well I guess I’m more interested in the potential, rather than the resolution [laughter]. But yes, that is always there. There are times when the material has lashed out or gashed a hole in the wall as I am trying to figure it out. But that allows me to understand the steel better, or whatever I’m working with, and how it moves and reacts to pressure and external force.
A lot in the work seems autobiographical. The work is skeletal. It is mesh and line that you can see through. It is like a body, your body, albeit mechanical. These are the bones, the nuts and bolts of a person. Over there the bungee sculptures are ribcages, the steel objects are suspended organs, the plasterboard piece is skin. Are you wrestling with yourself here?
A lot of what I am interested in is capturing the struggle, it is the idea of trauma and how trauma affects a person. I do have a melancholy outlook due to my life experiences. You mentioned earlier the tension or violence and I want to not suppress it but release it into the work. I wouldn’t call this therapeutic, and it isn’t consciously autobiographical but it’s almost inevitable. It is about taking on a conflict and then leaving that energy behind in the work. The residue of past events in life is always a kind of ghost in the room. And there is something I like to get into which is the notion of facade, what we show the world, so a lot of the materials I use are what is hidden inside a building – steel, wood etc – that isn’t meant to be seen. It is the structure underneath, but here I am presenting it in its base state
The materials you use and the formal aspects of your installations are redolent of the minimalist and conceptualist canon. Frank Stella, Carl Andre, Robert Morris and company. How do you – indeed, do you – distinguish yourself from those artists?
A lot of my work has an art historical reference that I am aware of. It is an investigation of sculpture and the object and where that can go. I go all the way back to Rodin, and his removal of stone, or Brancusi who made the pedestal a part of the work. I like the simplicity of everyday industrial materials. But beyond the formalist tendencies of the finished piece what I am really interested in is the emotion of the action, the history of the act of manufacture. That is important to me, whereas minimalist works are often about no feeling or a feeling of blankness. Minimalism sought to remove itself from the human or the corporeal, whereas I embrace that and I think that is where I break from the minimalist canon. I am seeking expression and self.