You Are What You Love

Excerpt from the 13Forest website:

“Level is an ode to Ryczek’s own childhood nostalgia and the cuteness culture prevalent in Korea.  The painting began with a photograph of the skyline taken from Ryczek’s hotel room. The Jumbotron that dominated his view seemed to encapsulate the sleek, beautiful and technologically advanced image that modern Seoul tries to present to the world. The sight reminded him of skylines from Nintendo games (primarily by Japanese designers) he played as a child; Ryczek reflected on how much his preconceptions of East Asian cities were shaped by those early moments of indirect exposure. Ryczek added elements characteristic of side-scrolling games like jewels, power-ups, life meters and other 8-bit video game staples to the scene. The cloud on the Jumbotron takes its haunted expression from a toy Ryczek spotted in Kyobo Bookstore, reflecting the unique blend of dark humor and anxiety he found in many similar tokens he encountered in Seoul.”

While creating work for Fascination Street, I noticed a major difference between my process with this series and that of earlier work: I was getting better at identifying creative walls when they appeared and subsequently pushing through them. It’s one of those things you can’t really know you were missing until something changes. In the case of Level, the piece started with an image that contained something I was confident I wanted to capture and share, but by the fifth or sixth session, the flow of inspiration came to a halt. The piece was now in stasis and I was nudging and refining without real direction, or as British painter Diarmuid Kelley put it: “coloring in space and no longer grappling with the subject”. The original image of a placid city rooftop cropped into a simple and straightforward composition was what compelled me to start, but more often than not, what initially attracts me to an image is not quite enough for a painting to work on its own.

Something gets lost – it may be something in the photograph’s quality that simply doesn’t get carried over with paint, or maybe it’s the feeling that I’ve fallen so in love with the image that I’ve not left room for any of my own visual ideas. These are hazards that are almost inevitable for every piece, and in the past I’d be more inclined to sort of give up without giving up – to complete a satisfactory painting that I was still proud of but contained very little visual or conceptual evolution. The final working stages in these situations are often uninspired, tedious and sometimes even remorseful – there’s a feeling that one has given up on a grandiose vision and played it safe. After witnessing this trajectory enough times, one can start to use defense mechanisms to automatically downplay inspiration when it strikes. I often do this to avoid becoming disillusioned early on, like someone protecting themselves from having their heart broken by refusing to fall in love. This is not a good thing for an artist because we need to allow for that spark to become a fire in order to do the work. There’s really no sense in playing it safe with art that you believe is worth putting out into the world.

So I didn’t quite know where to go next with Level, but I remembered some stray thoughts I had at the time of the photo – I was reminded of video games from my childhood, of Manga illustrations I’d seen of Japanese cities, of the heart wrenching drawings of city, sky and land I’d seen in Hayao Miyazaki’s animated films. These thoughts and feelings came and went in a jumbled mess.

I decided to lean all the way into the fantasy world I was seeing, making specific references in the painting instead of subtly hinting at them, and I suddenly felt like I was working on a new piece. The excitement returned and I looked forward to seeing what came of this new direction. There was a lot of self doubt involved as I was experimenting with something more lighthearted than I had before. There was an endless barrage of questions, as there always is: “Will this mesh with my painting style? Are the video game references too specific? Should this be flat and graphic or rendered with light and form? Should I stick with the existing color palette or try a new one? Taped edges or rough? Happy or sad? Funny or disturbing? Both? Will people connect with it on some level or not connect at all?”…These questions greeted me when I woke up and followed me as I headed off to bed. I’ve learned that obsessing over these things is a sign that a painting is working, because it means I care enough about it that I’m afraid it won’t be properly executed. Conversely, if the feeling has truly gone, those questions are few. I’ll try some new directions within the original framework, but if those don’t work, I tell myself to let it go and move on. The more I do this, the more I can immerse myself in the act of painting because I start to trust my instincts. When I get those pangs of worry and despair – even if I sense the piece in question might appeal to a broader audience or be more commercially viable than my other work – I take comfort in the knowledge that I simply won’t let something through unless it feels right.

That last question I listed above – “Will people connect with it on some level or not connect at all” – is the question that drowns out all the others during the course of a painting. There’s a long list of reasons for continuing a life of making art, but the ultimate purpose of creative expression is to connect with people on an intimate level. Every artist has their own set of priorities regarding what they choose to communicate, and I’ve found that my highest priorities are mood and atmosphere. They are what I notice in work that inspires me, and what drive me to create my own work. Lighting is the crux of a painting for me and the slightest dimming or brightening of a sky puts me in a completely different mental space as I’m working, one that I either embrace and dwell in or reject and try to escape. The rejection part is a childlike response, really – a kind of silent tantrum – but I’ve learned to listen to it. In Level, the sky was originally a bright clear blue, but it’s brightness would increase or decrease depending on what I did to it or to the spaces surrounding it, and each change would affect me deeply – it would change how I felt about the entire piece.

When I eventually let go and experimented with different types of skies, I stumbled into the dawn / dusk with magenta clouds visible in the final piece and I was elated, because it evoked something that was totally obtuse and unspecified, but was rooted in childhood and crushed me with a wave of emotion. The new sky gave way to changes for the rest of the piece: the overall palette changed to match, the central shape became a plastic bubble with an inner glow, the floating platforms were further developed. A few nameable things came to mind as I tried to figure out why this particular imagery affected me, although they really aren’t important in the end: cartoons, movies, toys, designs and colors popular with kids in the late 80’s / early 90’s (Lisa Frank came to mind), video games and other products marketed toward kids my age, real memories of real skies and dreams of fake skies…but I’ve come to realize that all of it, in the end, is me. It’s not the thing itself but what I projected onto it, how I processed and stored my experiences as a highly sensitive kid who couldn’t really put a name to things yet. It all comes together into this nonsensical and ever-changing bundle of nostalgia for something that never actually happened (the Brazilian / Portuguese concept of “Saudade” attempts to name this sensation) that occupies a distant part of my mind and is completely unrelated to the world as I now understand it. But it’s still there, and when I have it accessed by visual art made by others, or by myself, or by a song – it’s overwhelming, and as cliche as it may sound, it feels like going home. In that way, art is it’s own kind of religion.

In the end, however, it’s imperfect. We’ve discovered within ourselves very early on this wonderful phenomenon of artistic expression, which allows us to externalize the indescribable and, hopefully, to trigger some kind of emotional response in others. The catch is that observers will never fully understand what we’ve made exactly as we do, because human expression is limited.  One can not mind meld with another and truly see what the creator saw, they can only have their own unique response (which they, in turn, are limited in expressing back to the artist). I see this as wonderful and tragic at the same time, and it makes me think about describing dreams to someone upon waking. The dreamer translates a very personal imagined experience to another, trying to express how profound it all felt before it starts to fade. But all the listener hears is a ridiculous series of events that means little to them, and they’re just kind of waiting for it to end. Creative expression attempts to solve this disconnect, and it gets right up close to doing so, but in the end, we are ultimately alone with our own thoughts and feelings. As I mentioned earlier, the one-way nature of human connection is all a bit tragic. And at the same time, it’s also a beautiful part of the human experience.

There’s a scene in the movie Adaptation that has stuck with me for years. I think of it often when I’m in the studio – trying to work out why I do what I do and what it is I’m searching for as I try to express something that can never be fully received or reciprocated. Nick Cage plays Charlie and his identical twin brother Donald, who are both hiding from a vengeful Meryl Streep in a swamp, and they’re discussing a girl that Donald was in love with when they were in high school. Charlie recounts a time when Donald was flirting with her in the school library, and as Donald walked away, Charlie witnessed the girl and her friends making fun of him behind his back. Charlie talks about how much it hurt him to see his brother being mocked and assumes he was blissfully ignorant of the whole thing.

“I knew, I heard them” Donald says.

“Well how come you were so happy?”

“I loved Sarah, Charles. It was mine, that love. I owned it. And Sarah didn’t have the right to take it away. I can love whoever I want.”

“But she thought you were pathetic.”

“That was her business, not mine. You are what you love, not what loves you. That’s what I decided a long time ago.”

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