Conversation with Ryan Syrell about his exhibition Book of Flowers at Springsteen Gallery

On view June 8 – August 17


Can you talk about the title of your show, Book of Flowers?

It comes from a few places. Maybe the most obvious reference is to books of hours, the personal illuminated devotional manuscripts that were in use from the later part of the middle ages until printing disrupted their production. I liked the connection to the idea and the space of a book of hours (the implication of different focuses and different ways of thinking throughout the day), since a structural part of the show is how the paintings move through times of day; from sunset, through evening, and into moonlit night, and eventually, darker, moonless night. Another thing that drew me to books of hours was their inclusion of marginalia and notes, which often comment on, or even completely diverge from, the main content of any given page; the interplay between different scales and variations on subject is something I wanted to be apparent in a lot of the paintings.


I wanted most of these paintings to feel immediately recognizable as a navigable world, but that each would contain or hint at the embeddedness of smaller or larger worlds. This sense of numerous scales of environments leads into another part of the title, the Flowers. Probably more important than the scale shifts, I care a lot about trying to show changes in time and movement; in a painting, these things aren’t so far removed from one another. I like the idea of making a painting which can work to present things in a less anthropocentric way. So the flowers and plants are often central here not just as regular vanitas subjects referring back to human life and death, but really as entities in their own right, as versions of themselves; interrelated actors involved in the cycles and activities of their environments. Ginevra, my partner, and I live with a lot of plants, and to be aware and engaged with them is tremendously rewarding; to learn their needs and responses—It helps to maintain a mindful, non-anthropocentric awareness of our mutual embeddedness in the world.

There were also two actual books about flowers that were important to these paintings. One was really simply a floral field guide that we have at the house. It shows up in a few paintings (Monitor (Sunset), Flower Guide, Book of Flowers), and serves partially as a bridge between the actual physical presence/lives of these plants, and the human activity of taxonomy and ordering of them. The other book is by Mirella Levi-D’Ancona: Botticelli’s Primavera (A Botanical Interpretation Including Astrology, Alchemy, and the Medici). It’s a really remarkably deep investigation into the floriography of this unbelievably complicated and terrifying painting. It’s filled with these amazing diagrams; contour drawings of each of the main figures with floral information inserted throughout.


While I love this book, the main thing I got from it that showed up in my own paintings, was that the academic articulation about what certain flowers and plants may have meant to Botticelli and his contemporaries held no bearing on what made Primavera such an incredible, horrifying, and strange image. That while it may be engaged in an overtly intellectual play with the human-applied meanings of flowers, it draws deeper and more complicated intensity from the language of the forms of the plants and figures themselves. When I started putting this show together, I had presumed I was going to get deep into floriography, and have all sorts of very particular floral symbology at play, but Levi-D’Ancona’s text kind of surprisingly pushed me in the other direction.


At what point in this body of work did you know it would be shown in this space, and did that knowledge influence the work?

Very early on. Only one of the pieces was in progress when I started talking with Amelia and Hunter about the possibility of a show, so everything else was made with the space of the gallery in mind. I had started Ninth Wave as the piece around which everything else might generate, with the thought that, yes there is definitely a body of work to extract from this, but that this body of work would require a very specific relationship to its exhibition space. I wasn’t able to bring myself to make any other paintings for this group until I knew where it was going to be living. I ended up making a bunch of large drawings to go along with the proposal, which is something I rarely do. I draw all the time, but my drawings usually come after a painting, or they’re tangential to whatever is happening in the paintings. 


Working with Hunter and Amelia (of Springsteen), and with their space, was amazing! It absolutely influenced the direction in which the paintings unfolded. The interesting and unexpected thing was that the scale of the show increased a couple of times. We were originally going to use half of the space, and then we decided to move into a bit more of the gallery, and finally they suggested we just use the whole thing. So this was really exciting, because I had already landed on the idea of limiting the subject to just a fictionalized variation of our apartment as it moved from sunset into night. Each time we expanded the show, I suddenly had more room to zoom into different parts of the space, or different attributes of light, or mood, or reference, scale, etc.  It was maybe a little over a month out when we decided to use the entire space, so that’s when I ended up making this eight-foot long scale model of the gallery to really determine what else could be said through the paintings in that space. I took about a week to just look at the model, and think and write a bit more. That’s when I decided that all the larger things were done, and that we could nest a series of smaller works throughout the space to serve as little bridges or way-stations. The thought was, if these larger pieces have the feel of an illuminated page with shifts in scale, etc, then the insertion of substantially smaller works throughout the gallery might be a way to subtly apply that same book-of-hours-style construction to the space as a whole. So much of these things have to do with articulating numerous navigations of spaces in different ways; scale was just another simple method of bringing you near and far to the work, in and out of the surfaces. Ginevra’s thoughts regarding spatial and material poetics are always on my mind, and especially in a situation like this.


We brought all the large and medium-sized things to the gallery, and we danced those around for a few days. Hunter and Amelia and Ginevra were really generous about this; we really spent LOTS of time looking and moving things.  After that, I finished the smallest ones in response to what was happening in the space. An example of that would be Arranging, the small red-orange one right up front. The only other things in that large room are Ninth Wave and Monitor (Sunset), and while they may seem at first to be playful and rhythmic, the deeper and slower feeling of them sets in and is a bit more claustrophobic, more related to a wave or avalanche—an underlying anxiety of increasing heat. To have Arranging in the front, even if you don’t see it in the first pass, allows a different mood within essentially that same palette. There’s a literal hand rather than a reflection or ghost, it’s also a bit removed from the dense and overly humid glare of the other ones up front. All of the smaller paintings are a little interlude-like, and hopefully refresh you enough to go back into the other ones if you want.


How does your studio practice change leading up to an exhibition?

It gets way more exciting. I’ve been fortunate enough for the last couple of years to usually have a show on the horizon—sometimes a little too close together—but I always find the last 6 or so weeks before a solo show to be really energizing. You’re forced to break habits and take weirder risks, and I always find that in that window of time I’m sort of extra-sensitized to all things. Paintings and their logical or illogical worlds start to present themselves more fully; they basically start to call the shots, which is wonderful and terrifying. The way I build paintings, I’m oftentimes adding as much as I’m removing, and usually removing and scraping off more the closer I get to a show. What’s exciting about that is that as much as each move in these paintings is controlled and intentional, when you begin excavating down to much earlier choices, you activate this incredible nonlinear exchange between each phase of the painting—something you did for one reason a month ago comes into dialogue with a choice from today and last week, and its inflection is modified in a way that keeps you from getting too much of your ego into the thing. I’ve found that this also leads to one of my favorite sorts of moments within paintings—the places where the material and movement of paint becomes the hinge between the realm of sensation and the language of perception. These are the spots that oscillate very intensely between being something legible and belonging to language, and being something that works against and dissolves language. It’s the part of painting that reminds you and hopefully people looking, of the precarity and constructedness not only of painting, but our experience of the world.


The studio also gets super crowded. As often as I can, I need to have all related pieces for a show visible in the studio. So as a show gets closer, I’m really inhabiting a room made by the spaces of these paintings. It gets disorienting, but that seems to be part of the process at this point.


Now that the work is up and you have some distance, in an optimal viewing experience, do you notice anything new? Are you able to make connections that you didn’t realize were there before?

Being able to see the work here at Springsteen has been incredible, the amount of space each piece was given has really let me see these things in a way that I haven’t previously. Maybe the most pleasant surprise was that these little paintings, which I hadn’t done in quite awhile, were able to live alongside the larger things in such a fruitful way. That’s something that wasn’t really in play for a bit, but now it’s part of how I’m building the next show.


There weren’t too many other surprises though; it was just such a mapped out show, i mean, I was drawing out diagrams and charts and lists and things as stuff was coming together haha. Maybe one realization is the desire to make these paintings more disjunctive, both internally and between one another. Getting the paintings over here and the generosity of being able to have them all in the same space for a while before it opened, the thing that really hit me was that I wanted them to display more difference. That’s happening already with the next show. 


More than optimal viewing, or my own distance from the work, the best and most useful thing has been hearing and talking with people about their readings of the paintings. Baltimore has so many amazingly thoughtful artists and thinkers, just getting a response from everyone has been so so incredible. I always try to get the paintings to land in a place where there is a coherent sensory world, while the grip of perceptual language has been loosened up, so that you’re in a place of very active dialogue with the paintings. Seeing and hearing peoples’ responses in that regard has been such an amazing gift.



How does it feel going back to an “empty” studio and have you been working on anything else since the show opened?

It felt pretty calm, which was nice for a minute haha. I cleaned a lot, built new stretchers and primed surfaces—basic housekeeping stuff which can be nice. I didn’t have a ton of down time because there’s another show coming up very soon. I spent a while drawing and working on paper, trying to figure out what the seed of the next group of paintings would be. In the past, I always felt obligated to sort of pack up and move to another area when starting the next group of paintings, but this show has really made me question that. I had been doing these crayon drawings, trying to land on some color ideas, and I realized that I didn’t want to leave this color-space yet, and that I had no reason to. It was kind of wonderful surprise; these nocturnes, and this visual conceptualization of night-space just seems so expansive to me. I feel like I could be digging around in this space for a long time.


This show did a lot for me in getting color to even more fully land on some of the stuff I’m interested in doing. The strangeness and slipperiness of night, and having that as a thing that washes over a space that you are familiar with, to varying degrees, seems so rich to me right now that I don’t want to walk away from that. I’m trying to do the thing I tell my students to do; rather than go a long distance after a project, try just moving one or two degrees.


The newest stuff in the studio is both washier and denser than the Book of Flowers paintings. Some of it feels almost watercolor-like, but there are also more heavy impasto passages. It seems like this is a result of the spaces I’m trying to depict. These newer paintings aren’t confined to a single space, even within single canvases. There’s a much more fluid piling up of spatial memories; our home is still there, but other apartments, friends’ and relatives’ houses, a few of the guest room at NO/ gallery in Ghent, where we stayed for Ginevra’s show there. My memories of the spaces themselves don’t feel as concrete, so the whole thing feels even more transient; It’s always made slipperier because it’s exclusively from memory. It’s very different working from memory of a place where you live, compared to a spot that you stayed for a week, or a couple of days, a year or two ago. These new paintings feel sparser and stranger and more unnamable which I’m interested in.


It’s such a painter thing to say, but even though they aren’t naturalistic paintings at all, it’s the shift in light that’s bringing about differences in these new ones. Our windows, that have shown up a lot in these paintings, face west and we see these super vivid Baltimore sunsets— bright magenta and pink all over, red-orange and violet greys. And the spot where I’m at with some of these other paintings, for example, we were in Belgium and the window looked out onto this little concrete and tile courtyard and it was all this amazing soft glowing light. These new paintings suddenly turned into these much more faint ultramarine pinks and roses—gentler pigments, a bit more muted and washy. It’s kind of like a radically skewed version of still going after light of a particular place, so that’s been a big pivot that I realized. It had been hard to realize because these paintings weren’t hitting the mark right away—but usually the painting is right and I’m wrong, so I’m just trying to follow its lead.


Where/When is your next exhibition?

It’s in Richmond with Page Bond Gallery, opening on October 4th. Page is really wonderful, and I’ve shown with her for a few years and this is my second solo show at her space, so I’m very excited for that! The show is called New Moon, and it builds on all of the ideas in Book of Flowers, and it also picks up where the “latest” painting, Cleo’s Tarot, at Springsteen left off. They’re darker, stranger, night paintings, focusing more on thresholds in a variety of ways.

Exhibition view, Springsteen Gallery
Inertia Studio Visits