“I’m finding myself now–as a 36-year old artist–learning how to do things in painting that in New York, I never took the time to learn,” reflects painter Ryan Schneider. This expansion in Schneider’s artistic life was sparked by a cross-country move from his thirteen-year home of New York City to Joshua Tree, California.
Conveying the mystery of both the natural and the human world that appears in the desert, Schneider’s paintings are visibly influenced by this new landscape. Whether owls in flowering trees, snakes, cactuses or other creatures, Schneider renders both the flora and the fauna of Joshua Tree. This inclusion of nature lends an almost primitive aesthetic to the paintings, which is juxtaposed with his technical prowess. Not merely realistically depicting landscapes or portraits, Schneider, instead, portrays a palpable spiritual or mythical essence, derived from his creative contrast of vibrant colors and deep darkened hues.
In anticipation of his fall return to New York with a solo exhibition at Taymour Grahne Gallery, which opens October 28, I spoke with Schneider on his move from Brooklyn to Joshua Tree, how this new landscape changed his work and his interest in capturing the “Vale of Shadows” in his paintings.
I lived in New York for thirteen years. I only ever wanted to live in New York. I grew up in Indiana–kind of out in the country outside Indianapolis. I dreamt about living in New York, reading Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Jackson Pollock’s biography in high school and painting in my parents’ basement every night. I went to school at Maryland Institute College of Art because I wanted to be closer to New York. As soon as I could, I packed up my truck with $300 in my pocket and moved to New York. It was everything I dreamed it would be. The Lower East Side was the most perfect place in the world for me. It was what I had been looking for my whole life–so many amazing artists, musicians, designers and photographers. I hung out at Max Fish, Lit and the Hole. I just really found my place in the world there.
Fast forward, I began showing my work in 2006 and moved out to Brooklyn with my now-wife in 2010. In the summer of 2013, a couple of our friends bought a farm upstate. They said, “You guys can stay here as long and as much as you like if you help us for four hours a day with whatever we need done.” We just fell in love with being upstate. The funny thing is I grew up in the country. I loved it but I couldn’t wait to get out. Next thing I know, I’m spending two to three weeks at a time upstate, digging trenches, hiking and swimming in the swimming hole. It awakened this thing inside of me that I had lost touch with, which was a connection to nature. I would come back to New York, go in the studio and suddenly, imagery that I didn’t know was there was coming out. I saw this positive effect on my work.
My wife grew up in Los Angeles so we always came out to California to visit family. It was the same deal–I’d come back from a week in California and make these strange paintings I didn’t know I had in me. In 2014, we came to Joshua Tree for the first time. It was the summer after a hard winter in New York that was just traumatic for everybody. We just fell in love with it. By the fall, my wife was saying, “I need to leave New York this winter. You can come with me or you can stay.” We started looking and finally, I was like, “What about Joshua Tree?” We found this place that a woman was willing to rent us for three months. There was an outdoor space where I could paint. The first day, we woke up here and it was just jaw-droppingly beautiful. I started painting that morning.
It’s definitely had a big effect on my work and on me personally. Part of the reason I wanted to stay was because of what was happening in my work. If you look at my work before and after, it’s not like it’s this huge difference. But when I got here, I was painting outside, which had an effect on my work. It’s opened up possibilities because there’s a clarity out here. There’s more clarity in my work and I’m able to see it for what it is.
In Brooklyn, I was in the same studio for ten years. I was really spinning the wheel a lot. I was painting eight hours a day for five days a week, but I didn’t feel like I was making a whole lot of strides. I also couldn’t get a cup of coffee without running into another artist, which is both an awesome and suffocating thing about New York. I was so brutally aware of what everyone else was doing all the time. You’re stacked on top of and smushed in with thousands of other artists. I couldn’t quite get a handle on my intentions.
There’s a difference here because it’s so quiet. I can hear the inner voice saying, “Paint this that way.” Not to mention–I’m living in the middle of unspeakable beauty everyday–expansiveness, openness and crystal clarity. I’m standing in my studio now looking over miles and miles of open desert to a mountain range while also looking at my paintings.
Perhaps because of this landscape and the clarity, your paintings have this almost mystical quality that seems more connected to folk art. Do you see a spiritual aspect to your work?
There is a spiritual element to my work, which might be a no-no in the art world to talk about. My earlier work dealt with the world of forms in terms of self-portraiture or portraits of my wife. When I was in my twenties and early thirties, I was a real serious partier. I was out almost every night, drinking, doing drugs and hanging out. That had an influence on my work–interiors of New York apartments and windows looking out onto the city. Now in the last few years, there’s been a change. It’s a real spiritual practice for me. I don’t sit in the studio, mediate, open my eyes and make a painting. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m just more concerned with the formless than the formed–something in the ether that I’m trying to paint, which is not necessarily in front of me.
You know that show Stranger Things that’s on Netflix now? I was watching it this weekend and there’s a part where they talk about the “Vale of Shadows” or the “shadow world.” A place where things are but they aren’t. A few years ago, that became the world that was reflected in my painting. I don’t think I was necessarily trying for that, but it just started to happen and I listened to it. Immediately, when I arrived here, I could feel a connection to that world.
I also like how you’re using animals as well as figures, which you don’t often see in contemporary art. It lends to this mystical atmosphere. What is the role of the animals in your painting?
Living in Brooklyn, I was painting trees and animals every day–mostly from my imagination. Then I got out here and I’m living in this landscape that I’ve been trying to paint. In the first studio I had here, there was a desert tortoise who used to visit me while I painted. I met two people who lived in Joshua Tree for fifty years that never saw one in real life. It’s so rare to see one because they’re so endangered. They only come out three times a year for a day or two–most of their life is sleeping underground. It just came and hung out with me for a few days while I painted. Uncanny stuff like that happens around here. Every day I see lizards and quail. I hear coyotes every night. I see bobcats and owls. Owls started in my work even before I moved out here. So if I’m lucky while I’m painting–if I’m open and honest with myself and the painting, this stuff seeps in.
The first thing that struck me looking at your recent paintings was just the bright color, particularly that color offset by the dark backgrounds. It gives the work a haunting and otherworldly feel. What draws you to these types of color juxtapositions?
In terms of the nuts and bolts of learning how to paint, I never really learned it and I never really wanted to. I started painting–like really painting–when I was fifteen. I bought oil paint at Michael’s, went into my basement and set up a studio for myself. So I just knew I wanted to use yellow, blue, red, pink and purple. I didn’t want to use brown or ochre. Bright colors were this natural thing for me. In Indiana, it was really flat and really brown. It’s green in the summer, but most of the year, it’s brown and grey. Maybe it was some sort of coping mechanism. I was drawn to more tropical colors.
Right now, it’s true that having that juxtaposition of these bright colors with the dark black background of the night sky creates this glowing effect. It’s intentional. I want my work to glow. I want your eye to flit all over the painting. I love going to museums or galleries to stand in front of a painting that hypnotizes me. I strive for that in my work.
How would you like to affect your viewers?
As an artist–I think especially in this age of Instagram where everything is seen and liked in seconds, it’s a challenge to draw a viewer into your work and keep them there. A lot of artists these days try to make work that repulses people. I think that’s valid but I don’t know if you’re going to want to look at it a year from now. For me, I guess I’m a real traditional Indiana boy. I want to make something that’s pleasurable to look at–that draws you in and keeps you there. If you hang this thing on the wall, you’re not going to put it away in storage in six months. The more you look at it, the image grows rather than more dead-ends you find.
I’d like to make work on a more detailed and sensory level. I came to Joshua Tree to live more intentionally and be able to experience my life as it happens rather than trying to catch up. In New York, being in the swirl every day, I was having difficulty sorting that out. I want to connect–I want people that look at my work to feel something transformative. I want them to see something beyond what’s right in front of them on their cellphone. Most artists are trying to do that obviously. Art is transportive.