I prefer to work in series, each new body of work evolving out of the previous. Mostly the concepts originate from observations from day-to-day life that make me pause. For example, many years ago I noticed that being housebound with two small children led to feelings of claustrophobia and restlessness and Emily Dickinson became a compatriot and articulator of the experience. The Rare Bloom series grew out of noticing that the deceivingly banal domestic could turn dramatic and explosive. I located a fire-breathing woman and photographed her in her garden casually releasing a plume of fire and the series grew from there. Several bodies of work evolved from Rare Bloom as I continued engaging with topics that transform as I look closely-and in so doing break away from their assumed significance.
When I become attached to a concept I try to read any relevant text I can get my hands on whether it be poetry, biology, philosophy, fiction, nonfiction, etc., and then I gather empirical evidence through direct contact with the subject to deepen my engagement. I photograph, film, paint, and draw to document my findings. For my last few series, I enhanced my photographs following the subject as my guide (zooming in on nuances, tracing forms, and painting to emphasize color, form, and light). My studio is my laboratory for experimenting with process, materials, and imagery to find the most considerate means of describing discoveries I hope to share with others.
Re-evaluating my own biases also motivates many of the inquiries– I accrue valuable information from interacting with my subjects which really electrifies my work in the studio. In 2016 I got an opportunity to kayak in Antarctica and experienced a life-changing epiphany. I felt the place breathe and speak and gained clarity about the aliveness of the allegedly inanimate. It was as if the very awake creature that is Antarctica cast a spell to enable me to ingest both her majesty and vulnerability. The Unreal Real series was driven by an urgent need to disseminate the evidence I gathered about this magical disappearing place. Witnessing the animacy of Antarctica led me to scrutinize the assumed lesser status of other nonhuman beings and to question the hierarchy in general.
For the past few years, I have been researching the intelligence of non-human animals and discovered that one of the most intelligent beings who happens to be one of the most dissimilar to humans is the octopus. I read a description of the octopus as an “intelligent alien” and this made me pause. I thought about the use of the word “alien” as a distancing mechanism or an othering device and how the word has been weaponized to keep those unlike us in “their place” within the hierarchy. I learned about octopuses and got to spend time with two octopuses in particular, Poppy and Darwin. I began the series, All of Us Others both because I was drawn to these complicated creatures and because I felt the subject had resonance beyond the literal. Fear of the other and the western hierarchy are intertwined and I think an examination of both subjects in tandem is revelatory.
Below you will find writings from current guides as well as excerpts from reviews on a few bodies of work to hopefully complement the images you see on my site.
We’ve largely ignored Darwin’s scribbled note to himself not to use the words “higher order” or lower” in discussions. This is especially true of mental processes, which we routinely label ‘higher order’ or ‘lower order’. Many of us now assume that only one kind of thinking has intrinsic value. Or, more drastically, that there’s only one kind of thinking and only humans can do it. This is not only wrong; it impoverishes the living world.
It's always easier not to think for oneself. Find a nice safe hierarchy and settle in. Don't make changes, don't risk disapproval, don't upset your syndics. It's always easiest to let yourself be governed…Those who build walls are their own prisoners. I'm going to go fulfill my proper function in the social organism. I'm going to go unbuild walls.
-Ursula Le Guin
Have we fallen into a mesmerized state that makes us accept as inevitable that which is inferior or detrimental, as though having lost the will or the vision to demand that which is good?
The constant use and abuse of the Earth can be linked to our designation of the planet as a lesser object, rather than a vulnerable living entity. All of Us Others catalyzes a discussion about fear, ingrained biases, and “othering,” all of which distance humans from each other and from the rest of the natural world...I champion octopuses because they’re extraordinarily unlike us, evolving on a radically separate trajectory than mammals. Recently scientists discovered that octopuses have many valued traits: complex cognition, a sense of humor, comprehension of time, and the ability to feel pain. Partially due to their complexity, octopuses have become a popular research subject. They are an equally popular menu item.
From 2012 Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness:
We declare the following: The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.
-David Edelman of the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, California
-Philip Low of Stanford University
-Christof Koch of the California Institute of Technology
You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she's not deadly. She's beautiful and she's laughing.
-Helene Cixous, The Laugh of the Medusa
2. QUERIES: HOW DO WE DEFINE PEOPLE?
Does a person have to be a human being?
Are animals people?
Are corporations people?
Are ideas people?
Are objects made by humans people?
What about future people?
Are children people?
Are babies people?
Are fetuses people?
Are embryos people?
Are zygotes people?
Are sperm people?
Are ova people?
-Brenda Shaughnessy, Are Women People?
When I was a debutante I often went to the zoological garden. I went so often that I was better acquainted with animals than with the young girls of my age. It was to escape from the world that I found myself each day at the zoo. The beast I knew best was a young hyena. She knew me too. She was extremely intelligent; I taught her French and in return she taught me her language. We spent many pleasant hours in this way.
The aspiration of total merger transfixes. The haunted longs to be the haunt. Craving landscape with such fervor, Ryan’s camera can’t get enough of those waterways, breezes, grasses, roots, and tree branches filigreed against bright sky. Camouflage is one way she explores disappearance and environmental fusion in her Invisibility Experiment (2008), a large, two-channel video projection on either side of a floating screen, one side tracking a flock of birds in flight from below, each individual bird lost in the pulsing swarm’s collective fluttering; on the flip side, the projection of a changing landscapes is traversed by a single figure who, when coming to a standstill, disappears in camouflaged stasis.
Another way is through the formal correspondence and morphological interpenetration of animal and human, plant and person. Transfiguring between species and states of matter, the fantasy of becoming plant or becoming another animal implies a vast animistic continuum of living matter, a fluid interplay that satisfies “a mutual need between the landscape and the body.” Everything alive is mutually permeable, enmeshed, porous, and entangled. The notion is so far beyond spirituality and magic, though it is that too. It’s basic science and ecology, which everyone knows by now is the necessary paradigm of our time. The desire to swallow the world in ravenous gulps, and be swallowed up by it in turn, is a two-way street of eviscerating ecstasy, a non-erogenous coming together and entropic collapse of figure and ground into one another. How to show the body—in life, not death—pushing up daisies and fueling new photosynthetic growth?
In Something tells me she didn’t look back (2006), the metamorphosis is Ovidian, piecing together at least fifty photographs into a loose, vertical array of body parts intermixed with arboreal forms: “Like trying to imagine what it was like to be Daphne as she was turning into a tree.” Or in Fluid (2005), where a gust of wind whips up locks of dark hair to expose that wedge of white skin on the back of the figure’s neck, echoing the sky as her loose, tentacular hair blends into the canopy of sinuous, snaking branches. And in Enough for Now (2004), the pale flesh of an upturned arm is creepily wrapped by an arcing shoot of dark leaves that curves along its form as though about to pierce and enter the skin: vines and veins, branches and limbs, leaves as second skin.
Rather than abandon the human entirely, the artist dreams of joining with the thing observed while maintaining her own inner humanness, her sense of self. Morphing, merging, and disappearing into landscape through the flattening and juxtaposition of photography—this is Ryan at her most surreal and, seemingly, most feminist, resonating with predecessors such as Ana Mendieta or Dorothea Tanning.
excerpt from her essay, Consciousness Flotation Device, The Unreal Real
The task is to make kin in lines of inventive connection as a practice of learning to live and die well with each other in a thick present...We are all responsible to and for shaping conditions for multispecies flourishing in the face of terrible histories, and sometimes joyful histories too, but we are not all response-able in the same ways.
Diverse human and nonhuman players are necessary in every fiber of the tissues of the urgently needed Chthulucene story. The chief actors are not restricted to the too-big players in the too-big stories of Capitalism and the Anthropos, both of which invite odd apocalyptic panics and even odder disengaged denunciations rather than attentive practices of thought, love, rage, and care.
Staying With the Trouble Making Kin in the Chthulucene
Nature has taught me about fluid adaptability. About not only weathering storms, but using howling winds to spread seeds wide, torrential rains to nurture roots so they can grow deeper and stronger. Nature has taught me that a storm can be used to clear out branches that are dying, to let go of that which was keeping us from growing in new directions. These are lessons we need for organizing. As Octavia (Butler) taught us, the only lasting truth is change. We will face social and political storms we could not even imagine. The question becomes not just how do we survive them, but how do we prepare so when we do suddenly find ourselves in the midst of an unexpected onslaught, we can capture the potential, the possibilities inherent in the chaos, and ride it like dawn skimming the horizon?
-Adrienne Maree Brown
The sound and fury of nature in its violence fades here to something coolly reconstructed. In Wind(shield) hail (2014), the ‘scar tissue’ of the fractured safety glass divides the frame into zones of dark and light, with the lower right portion portending an oncoming storm across a horizon, and the upper left portion revealing a clearing sky bright with clouds. Human artifacts seem an almost insulting intrusion on an organic exchange. The quiet copulations of Clover and 300 (2014) give way to something approaching the elegiac in Blue Bleed (2013) in which a polished car hood littered with jacaranda blossoms becomes a sapphire reflecting pool for the trees looming directly overhead and reflected in the windshield.
-Ezhra Jean Black
excerpt from Liza Ryan, Artillery Magazine
In Spill, we read arteries and veins circulating over and around the human body, connecting it to the world. Conversely, the landscape is anthropomorphized and animated in harmony with biological rhythm. Spill unfolds a vision of the relationship between the natural and the biological, upon and within which the fluid, viscous properties of ink, evocative of blood, bile, phlegm, and water, are released in pursuit of transcendent, metaphysical encounters. In this respect, Ryan’s illegible “script” shares a great deal with other esoteric spiritual typographic forms, such as the spirit writing of nineteenth-century Shaker artists. Ryan uses ink-the residue of conflagration and the most base of substances-to catalyze human awareness of the abstruse and elusive nature of existence…
Let us accelerate our reading of Spill’s twenty-three frames; temporarily formalize its tropes; articulate them aurally. So, out loud, this time from right to left: scapulae; stream; owl; bush; scapulae; falcon; forest; falcon; tree; scapulae; dove; hands; thicket; bird; leaves’ roots; goat; forest; scapulae; vines; falcon; forest; mouth.
The cyclical rhythm of the images-body, nature, bird; body, nature, bird-seeps into the unconscious, blurring the boundaries between the human and nonhuman, coalescing strange associations: symbolic, chimerical forms.
excerpt from her essay, Spill, Liza Ryan: Spill
There’s a great intelligence there. We’ve been treating the Earth as if it were a supply house and a sewer. We’ve been grabbing, extracting resources from it for our cars and our hair dryers and our bombs, and we’ve been pouring the waste into it until it’s overflowing. But our Earth is not a supply house and a sewer. It is our larger body. We breathe it. We taste it. We are it.
-Joanna Macy, excerpt from interview, A Wild Love For the World, with Krista Tippet