Saturday, June 1, 2013

To Travel Alone: The Photography of Ryan Hancock

A few months ago, I saw one of Ryan Hancock's photographs--the one of the three glowing Magi lighting up a Berber carpet and Pepto walls--and I hated it. But it's also kind of a fantastic picture, and so I looked him up. I hated a lot of his images, but there were a few that I'm warming to, that do something interesting with multiples (or, conversely, with objects or creatures in isolation).

Hancock did an interview in 2011 that I also hate and love in equal measure. He praised the mid-century painter Giorgio Morandi who, he claims,

manages, in just a small arrangement of two or three objects, to show the predicament of something infinite being bound up in something temporal. His paintings flicker between being a particular group of objects, during particular hours of daylight, and through the artists’ translation into paint, of being terrifying reminders of the incredible vastness of non-existence surrounding us. Reminders how much easier it is simply not to be, and the grace by which anything actually exists. I’d love to do something similar in a photograph. I’m always trying to solve that problem.. how to address what I feel are the biggest and most basic issues (why and how do we exist, rather than not exist) without becoming heavy and boring and cliched and precious and… any other of the infinity of ways any work of art can fail. In fact, I’d say my relationship to my images is to give up hope of succeeding in a way I’d like, and then shooting it anyway.

The vast majority of his pictures seem, to me, exactly cliched and precious: Twelve peaches in a porcelain sink crowned artfully by a bunch of green leaves; two dozen firecracker nubs, burned-out and scattered in an oil stain. Is this a failing?

Hancock seems to appreciate things in bunches, or as nebula. Even when a single subject draws our attention, there is something multiple in the picture (and it's probably more interesting). There is a naked and moon-pale man wading in a goldfish pond, but I can't stop looking at the tree whose reflection he has entered and split, separating its highest and lowest branches.

I'm put off by the romanticism with which he describes his background and practice. Speaking of the trees he slept in while growing up in Flintstone, Georgia, he sounds like a prose poet, or a scholar writing on Gordon Matta-Clark. Describing early adventures, he becomes Dean Moriarty, watered down and lukewarm:

When I was 18 or 19 I packed my Civic Hatchback full of rice and beans and a small propane stove and drove all over the country one summer. I slept in hotel parking lots and saw all but three states. This was before cell phones, when you could actually feel alone, and I've never been more lonely in my life. It was such an essential experience. I generally like to travel alone, maybe because of that trip.

The artist becomes the "eye in the sky" whose height allows him to observe the bunches (and the nebula), and to draw meaning (or perhaps make it?) from their arrangement. When the subject is singular, its framing becomes a confrontation, and multiplicity happens between the viewer/artist and it. We are drawn into the nebula, and it is left to some higher eye to draw meaning.

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