Byzantine paintings were created to as icons depicting the eternal while denying the ephemeral. That’s why many 11th and 12th century wooden panel paintings were gilded with gold backgrounds and exhibited floating figures of the Christ, the Madonna and the saints. These images are what inspired River Arts District artist Ryan Ford. “I’ve always been very intrigued by the aesthetics of religious icon art,” he told me in a recent interview in his studio at The Wedge (one of the many warehouse buildings scattered along the French Broad River District). The work that started it all was his replica of St. Anthony Beaten by Devils.
“It’s a fifteenth century, Sienese painting by Stefano di Giovanni,” Ryan Ford began. “The original was an egg tempera painting. I did this in oil paint,” he gestured to the panel on the wall.
“Interesting story about this one… supposedly the peasants were so moved by the piece that they [would] scratch away the beasts faces and genitalia revealing the under sketching. So, that’s what you’re seeing here.” Ford pointed at the portion of the painting where a beast’s groin revealed gold smudges. “I wouldn’t imagine this painting any other way. It’s one of my favorite paintings in the world. That’s why I did an exact copy of it.” Ford explained, “the Sienese artists… capture an air of inquisitiveness. It’s almost timeless and just for them. They paint very simply. They don’t over do anything. I mean, look at the trees in the background. They’re little mushroom shapes. It’s just got this air of truth and beauty that was just so moving to me.”
Ford hit on something that has been missing in contemporary art for a long time, “truth and beauty.” The formula, in the classical school of thought, was to display truth and beauty. Even disturbing images depicted in Stefano di Giovanni painting held a timeless quality and vocabulary that is lost on young, contemporary artists. In Ford’s work he combines violent and comedic elements that resonate.
He moved passed a huge furry mask hanging from the low ceiling and deeper into his studio to a work in progress. “I’m doing a show coming up in April. That’s what this one is for,” He told me as he stood to the left the unfinished painting on an easel.
“I’ve talked [with] friends that have faced the issue of suicide. So, this is kind of a tribute. You’ll notice the brains coming out of the side of his head I painted in gold. Like your ideas are golden. I had this composition in my head and I’ve [wanted] to do it for awhile. I just started yesterday so I’ve gotten this far. There’s a long way to go on it. This for the next show in April.” Ryan Ford is hosting a show April 30th at the Wedge Gallery. The title of the fine arts show is “All Desperate and Golden.”
Behind Ryan Ford hung a large painting dominating the far wall. Its intensity reminds me of an apocryphal vision. Last April, the Mountain Xpress ran an article by Connie Bostic featuring him and Julie Masaoka. In that article Julie wrote: “Ford, who’s now reading the Bible, says he loves the visions these stories inspire. He’s particularly moved… by the Book of Job.” As we moved deeper into his small studio as he told me of the story behind the painting and within the painting.
“I read the Bible. It took me like eight months to read. I’m not going to act like I know everything about the Bible now, because I’m probably just as confused after reading as I was before reading it. So, I was drawn to Revelation. I mean, I love the way it was written. This,” he paused as he looked at his work. “I took from Revelation. The alpha and omega,” Ford pointed to the creature in the upper right hand corner and then casually shuffled to the left side of the painting. “And the angel descending from the sky is dropping seven stars and seven candles. I forget what they are significant of. I’m mixing Revelation with my own little character. His name is Hot-Pants. He’s kind of like the unsung hero. He’s the everyday person. He’s you and me. He’s running blind through his own life. Just kind of taking it as [it] comes, and he’s getting hit from every direction. But he still has a smile on his paper bag.” Hot-Pants is represented by a figure in a red spandex body suit, a blue cap and a paper bag in place of a mask.
“I’ve got a lot of characters,” Ford continued. “This here is our typical businessman who is made a lot of bad decisions. He fears for his life. He’s got his wings right now, but they’re not going to last.”
We discussed other selections of the Bible. We reflected on vibrant imagery in the Bible such as a passage from Zechariah: “I saw by night, and behold, a man riding on a red horse, and it stood among the myrtle trees in the hollow; and behind him were horses: red, sorrel, and white.”
“Yeah that’s how it is in reading it,” Ford responded. “It’s like pieces of it really just grip me. Like I read fragments and… like whoa, you know, and get blown away. Throughout [my] life English and art teachers always move me the most, you know. Of course, Iâ??m retarded in math. But I had an English teacher who said ‘if you read one book, I definitely suggest reading the Bible. If nothing else for the literary quality’.” He turned back to his painting and continued to explain his vision.
“Another central figure here is a rapper. He’s got the armor piercing lyric logo above him, because he’s kind of like the Christ-figure. He’s using his voice as a weapon. And then Jacob’s ladder connecting heaven and earth. I also put [it] in there because it’s one of my favorite movies.”
“It’s just pieces I put together, you know. Actually a lot of the characters I sketch in there one day but a lot of it kind of grows as I go along. The cloud-eater… like what the hell is that? What does that mean? I don’t know. So, I took a cloud-eater [and] made this little monster that’s attractive to me. I don’t try to explain. It just fits for me. And it’s fun.
“My roommate always makes fun of me, ‘All your stuff is like a kid. You can’t grow up.’ Yeah, well, that’s what’s fun to me. I’ve got reference to Mario Brothers with the little bricks. That’s referencing to childhood… nostalgia also.”
Reesa Grushka, in a recent essay, wrote, “Translation usually makes what is foreign familiar. An inverse translation claims what is familiar as the domain of the foreign.” The creations of Ryan Ford seem to translate ancient themes of truth and beauty into contemporary visual stories. Inversely, his use of pop culture icons woven into early renaissance structure communicates well to the modern audience.
(Originally published in The Indie, April 2004 issue.)