In Praise of Shadows: Artist Ryan Bock’s Dynamic Visual Poetry

Written by Audra Lambert and Deianira Tolema

In describing his process, artist/explorer/sociologist Ryan Bock reveals with discerning fervor that he is “more interested in asking questions than giving absolute answers.” The depth of Bock’s inquiry can be gauged when viewing his work in solo exhibition format: the animated adumbrations prevalent in his work resuscitate the shadows in Munch’s Scream, whose haunting questions cast doubt over centuries of “truth.” To a viewer immersed in incurable skepticism, exponential questions arise. Why does the artist obsessively paint interior and public walls with hyper-controlled, miniscule strokes of grays and blacks, making sure each line is distinctly not-quite-parallel to the others? What brings Bock to claim that these linear images evoke the subconscious depths of his own, stateless soul? What meanings are hidden within these sharp, refined strokes of line?

Ryan Bock, Behid the Wall at Ground Effect Paris, Install View, 2017, Courtesy the Artist

Truth is no more available now than it has ever been—it is only a whisper: obscured, dimly glimpsed and reflected. Truth lies in the vision of sap in a tree’s tortured trunk strewn in the middle of an abandoned yard or in stained plaster, yellowed by time and life—pollution, calcified guano, and cigarette dust. It hides within the naive outlines of outsider art and so-called “art brut.” These natural elements, along with humanity’s more industrial creations, capture and share the indefinable bleakness that lack of truth can spawn a poetry that lives outside the need to conform to society’s intellectual machinations. These inimitable qualities lie within the purview of Bock’s work: his is an art made not to be analyzed, but to be experienced.

Bock’s art presents pure thought, emerging and shuddering into a new, conflicted aesthetic owing to a hefty Cubist inheritance. Futurism penetrates his works, redolent of world-renowned Italian artists Umberto Boccioni and Giacomo Balla—both unstoppable explorers of the junction point between form and movement. From there it is possible to delve more deeply into the tainted penumbra of the human psyche that Bock presents in his oeuvre.

Bock’s exploration is unusual in our current age of dead criticism, where the market often prevails over critical examinations of art history or psychology. Still, each Ryan Bock artwork prophetically reveals the incurable, double-sided symptom of an existential illness dragging its chains toward a global community that is blind and alienated, and increasingly immune to the panacea of art.

Ryan Bock, Figure Descending Staircase, Courtesy of the Artist

Ryan Bock, Descending Stars at Juxtapoz House, Miami (Wynwood), 2016

A Fellowship of Punished Shades

Staring at Bock’s lonely figures, one experiences the self-examination they extol and the firmly incontrovertible nature of their isolation. Murmurs of Kafka permeate these works of heightened dread and paranoia, with monochrome linear boundaries defining the impermeable and confined nature individuals in an increasingly alienated contemporary society. Bock’s works also delve into the undercurrent forming the bedrock of the urban condition.

The artist’s 2018 exhibition, Bocktropolis, combines loaded imagery contrasting past and present civilizations. Our achievements as well as our failings are ultimately implicated within the frozen imagery of upside-down obelisks and isolated rooftops. Singular figures traverse interiors, alone, mannerist bodies in anxious, monochromatic spaces. Bock unflinchingly portrays society’s best and worst to itself: preferring not to comment or judge, Bock instead to pose questions about our global social evolution. An American artist with roots in South Africa, Bock’s complex re-imagining of historic artistic styles incorporates a distinctly street art graphic sensibility while simultaneously considering the African masks which ultimately inspired the canon of modern art.

Ryan Bock, When the Man Comes Around, 2017

Knowledgeable and rooted in his artistic practice, Bock synthesizes various aspects of modern art with a distinct vision. Meshing together his definitive, perceptive graphic acumen with stylistic figuration, Bock’s work displays an aptitude for observation. His figures betray the angst underlying everyday life, their visages barely containing pointed fear. His work communicates figures going through the motions of isolated contemporary life: a puppeteer skillfully reflected on his marionettes’ “smiles”, the artist tugs at the invisible strings that connect body and soul in a surreal dialectic where the tragedy of existence can only be staged from afar.

Bock’s work “When the Man Comes Around” (2017) features a menacing figure’s shadow cast up stairs, surrounded by an urban landscape. The evidence of a solitary figure is present, though the figure himself is ultimately missing. Created in greyscale, perspectival lines askew, the piece raises questions that can have no answer.

The artist is no stranger to exploring the theme of shadows: he credits a German fairy tale, Peter Schlemihls wundersame Geschichte (Peter Schlemihl’s Miraculous Story), with inspiring his fascination with the subject. Recounting the fable of Peter Schlemihl’s deal with the devil, giving his shadow away in an apparently Faustian bargain and suffering the exclusion by his peers as a result. This sense of exclusion and menacing social anxiety floods this work which casts old and new atop one another with apartment blocks sharing space with obelisks. Echoes of Metropolis, another German legend, creep into Bock’s stylistic architectural and urban fantasies. The figure is implicated, yet impossible to identify, further outlining Bock’s penchant for ambiguity.

 Cubism is another difficult to identify influence in Bock’s work. The artist alludes to whisper of Cubist composition markers, yet creates faces whose shadows and angular arrangements reference African tribal masks. The paths which traverse history leading to the slippery, unsurmountable legacy of colonialism and its resulting authorization of history can be inferred – yet are never explicit – in the artist’s practice. Spending time in Prague in 2011, the artist uncovered a lesser known branch of Cubism espoused by early 20th century Czech artists Josef Čapek and František Kupka, among others. This Cubist impulse spread throughout multiple disciplines for Czech creators, influencing architecture and theater as readily as it did the visual arts. Bock’s penchant for placing his works within an expanded field, as readily evidenced in his 2018 exhibition Bocktropolis, further speaks to this impulse for applying Cubist principles to spheres of influence pervading contemporary culture.

 Bock’s current practice continues to evolve in new and surprising ways, yet one emblematic work remains prescient considering our contemporary circumstances: Ryan Bock’s 2015 artwork, “Congo Bubble Gum.” This work features a faceless figure – possibly a thief whose head is fragmented in a hundred asymmetric pieces – seated in front of his fate, waiting for an ordeal at the hand of a vengeful, African Goddess of justice. It is an ordeal he cannot escape; one that will determine his place in the world. Alluding to the genocide Belgium perpetrated in the so-called “Belgian Congo” by King Leopold II during colonial times in a searing and sweeping series of capital punishments on gum farmers, the image demonstrates the undeniable fact that history can never escape its own purportedly hidden truths. This theme recurs in “Incarceration Part I” and “Incarceration Part II,” investigating the American privatized prison system that does little to serve its inmates, residents which invariably skew toward those disadvantaged under our current system of privilege oppressing minority American citizens well into the 21st century.

Ryan Bock, Congo Bubblegum, 2015

Archetypes of Neurosis and Tedium

 Beginning in 2016 when Bock’s animated shadows falling off stairs and ladders became recurrent elements – the absence of identifiable figure began to weave allegorical threads connecting the artist’s multivalent practice. These dizzying allegories refer to the inveterate impossibility of keeping up with societal standards, standards now dictated by capitalism, local and international politics, and commercials. Wherever we mediocre humans go, wherever we turn our heads, there is nothing but personifications of Svankmajer’s Otesàanek – a diabolic creature born of women’s maternal desire to feed off their own neurosis and frustrations through projection and reverse objectification. Domestic environments, normally associated with intimacy and safety, are replaced by hand-waving black holes – see, for instance, the gothic-Arabian balconies of “The Tower” and grotesque, moving architectures of “Enasni Leber’s Escape.” Human beings are again reduced to unintelligible leftovers of their own, lost humanity, particularly in an increasingly dystopic landscape of backlit screens. Our own inability to communicate and empathize with one another belongs as easily to today’s general psychological anxiety as it would a hypothetical Kafka novel: equal parts Black Mirror and The Trial.  

Ryan Bock, Ancestors, 2015

In a 2017 production, Bock’s raw but metaphysical scenarios such as his “Mural for the #STARRARTPROJECT, Brooklyn” became more decorative and less conceptually intensive without losing their archetypical structure. They connect the teachings of our forbearers— “Ancestors,” 2015—to the ideologically anarchic rebellion of humanity against the immanent weight of history and its tedious, self-repeating, patterns— “Sainted by Falling Obelisk,”2017.

Ryan Bock in his studio, Brooklyn. Photo Credit Caitlin Ivrey, Courtesy the Artist

Yet, no matter what the subject, no matter how dark the psychological nuanced Bock’s works lend us to consider, every work is imbued with a light that feels, astonishingly, like hope. It is the kind of naïve yearning toward an answer lingering just out of our line of sight – embedded in the sharp angles of toppled obelisks or in the subtle shades of gray delineating receding buildings. Perhaps there if any answers exist, there is no way to uncover them but by meting out the levels of contrast infusing the very foundations of Bock’s elusive, plaintive compositions.

Ryan Bock in his studio, Brooklyn. Photo Credit Caitlin Ivrey, Courtesy the Artist

Ryan Bock in his studio, Brooklyn. Photo Credit Caitlin Ivrey, Courtesy the Artist

Bock’s new solo show “I’m Afraid of Americans” at Ground Effect gallery in Paris is on view through June 14. His work has been included in the popular Superfine art fair and was also on display at Miami’s prestigious Juxtapoz Clubhouse from December 7-10, 2017.

Editors: Rebecca Kinzie Bastian

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