top of page


by Stephanie Snyder

Liza Ryan: Spill, exhibition catalogue, 2009 


Liza Ryan photographs the world, creating archives of natural and biological forms. The artist then utilizes this library as the prima materia for carefully assembled serial assemblages, inspired by myth, history, and literature, that specifically explore the animate, the inanimate, and the inexplicable. Spill, Liza Ryan’s darkly sensuous photographic panorama, across which the artist has “spilled” and manipulated piceous inks, and with meticulous precision, drawn migrating colonies of patterns in reflective graphite, possesses a spontaneous yet authoritative presence akin to the “broken” and “splashed-ink” landscapes of Tang Dynasty (618-907 C.E.) philosopher poets such as Wang Wei, and their later followers, such as Zhang Daqian (1899–1983). In kinship with these Chinese “splashed-color,” or “pomo” (in Chinese) landscape painters and calligraphers, Spill’s exposition of the tangible world is expressed through a metaphorical inversion of the human body, expressing it as nature, and vice versa. In Spill, we read arteries and veins circulating over and around the human (female) body, covering and connecting the human organ. Conversely, the landscape is anthropomorphized and animated in harmony with biological rhythms. 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 19th century Shaker artists. 


Ryan uses ink—the residue of conflagration and the most base of substances—to catalyze human awareness toward the abstruse and elusive nature of existence. The black death of transformation becomes an allegory for the constraining, yet insubstantial and transitory dimensions of corporeal existence. Ryan applies, and guides the ink across the surface of Spill in a manner that is tightly controlled yet random and chanced, shaped by the artist’s “pre-linguistic” body-mind and unseen forces. The subtle differences in surface tension created by the ink colors used in the photographic printing process attract and repel the ink; for instance, velvety black areas of the photographs attract and collect the dark fluid—like seeking like


Spill’s image ground, nearly monumental in scale, is a processional, photographic frieze, 122 inches in length, built upon a book-thick frame. At approximately two-thirds Spill’s length, the piece sharply turns the corner of the room at a ninety-degree angle. Constructed to confront the architecture of the space, Spill’s “bending inward” creates the illusion of a “slit” or “slice” that penetrates the gallery, evoking interiorized spaces and gestures—the gutter of an open book; the angle of an elbow joint; the flexing of a bird’s wing. The work’s axial form magnifies its spatial and temporal aspects. Its perpendicular lines suggest the instrumental (indeed, photographic) framing of space, and its deliberate spatial shift slows and steadies the reading of the piece from left to right, or right to left. Ryan does not mandate how the work should be read, but the artist engages the viewer in a dynamic and playful kinetic “bounce back” by positioning two simple yet tense human gestures at each end of the frieze—an open mouth (left) and a woman grasping her scapula (right). These eerie moments make us flinch, exciting our attention in the other direction; it’s a see-saw effect initiated by an acute sense of discomfort, a recurring itch, exemplified by Spill’s image of a finger slowly excavated itself with the tip of a bird quill.


Spill’s meandering pools, arcs, and rivulets of ink circumnavigate photographs of birds, nature, and the female body. At the left-hand edge of the work, we see a mouth agape (it reads like a female child’s mouth). It is open wide, screaming, or waiting receptively. A thick “kelp bulb” of ink emerges from the mouth’s soft, cerise interior; it seems to be the “birthplace” of the flowing blackness. The ink, we seem assured, originates out of this virginal mouth. Yet as we read further into the work, and at some indiscernible point return our gaze to the girl’s “silent scream,” we realize that the dark mass of ink that we so confidently thought was flowing out of the mouth, may just as likely be flowing into it. Such are Spill’s narrative oscillations. Meaning is interrupted and occluded through such cycles and reversals. Ryan’s position, in this regard, appears meta-cinematic; characters are established; yet their relationships are left as open as possible, limned by the spreading black.


Ryan crops and amasses Spill’s photographic frieze with great control, carefully shifting the scale, focal length and motion within each image. Reading Spill from left to right, we see the girl’s open mouth, shot closely and slightly out of focus; this is followed by a forest scene, blurred horizontally, suggesting the dream-state induced by the view from a moving car—this image too is reminiscent of childhood. Following this, a tethered hawk—wings and tail feathers spread—darts away from the camera and “into” the next frame: a thicket of curling, dun vines. The next scene—in black and white—returns us to the female body: the subtle contours of a woman’s back bear the shadows of her curling pony tail, the hair’s tendrils resemble the meadow’s tangled vines. The woman’s scapula is exaggerated by the darkness that surrounds her—human and avian anatomy intertwined: one almost expects to see a wound on the woman’s back, where her “wings” were severed from her body. A wave of graphite patterns, suggesting falcon wings, migrates the viewer into the next frame, depicting a grove of ivy-covered trees. From the forest again we emerge, into the next frame, gazing up at the head of a goat set against a bright blue sky. This is followed by a sepia-toned tangle of roots oddly resembling a human head, and then, an image of dark trunks rising from a forest floor blanketed in carmine leaves. The next frame depicts a dead bird lying on its back; the photograph is cropped as tightly as possible creating the impression of a specimen stuffed into a bird box at the Museum of Natural History. Following this: a tangle of bushes; an image of a woman masochistically carving her finger with a bird quill; a white dove ascending; the gorgeous curves of a woman’s back, her scapula outlined in shadow, her abundant back-hair curving in double lines. And then the shaky reflection of a tree in water; the outstretched wings of a hawk where we reach the corner turn of the piece. It’s through the black and white image of the bird’s tail-feathers that we shift our bodies and our attention. In Ryan’s work there are no accidents; the bird’s flight marks the work’s turning point, and as we round the corner, we find ourselves again in the trees. The next image, the attentive viewer will recognize, is a scene from Ryan’s two-channel film work Sight Unseen. This image depicts a falcon racing through the sky, low, over a grassy brown meadow. This image is followed again by the gentle curves of a woman’s back; then the crimson leaves of an autumn bush; the turning head of a horned owl cropped tightly like the dead bird encountered earlier; a flowing body of water; and at the “other” end of the piece, a painterly image of a woman grasping her scapula, her fingertips pink from the pressure, her black hair gently curling over the tops of her shoulders. 


Let us accelerate our reading of Spill’s 23 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, etc. seep into the unconscious, blurring the boundaries between human and non-human, coalescing strange associations—symbolic, chimerical forms. Spill’s methodical “animation” recalls the motion studies of early photographers and illusionists—the zoetrope and the lanternslide—and its strange animism generates a surreal or as yet unrealized place—a heterotopia—that is in direct contrast to the immediacy and continuity of the spidery flow of the ink across the work’s surface. We find ourselves confronted by contrasting sensory experiences.


The Surrealist preoccupation, or to be more specific, Andre Breton’s obsession with a compulsive beauty catalyzed by a metaphysical alchemy “linking motion with repose,” has more than once been associated with Liza Ryan’s photographs and installations. Breton’s narcissistic imaginary, embodied by his invocation of the female body caught in the moment of climax, positions the female body as both languid receptacle and unpredictable animal—our eyes, reflecting pools; our vaginas, clenched lobster claws. Breton’s description of female schizophrenia became the perfect agent from which to institutionalize an aesthetic schizophrenia long indexed in scientific and psychoanalytic circles using the technology of photography. I would like to commit an act of patricide and definitively reposition Ryan’s work away from Breton and Surrealism’s misogynistic tendencies, and place it squarely it in the context of Surrealist women artists and writers such as Merit Oppenheim, Mina Loy, Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, and Dorothea Tanning. Merit Oppenheim’s 1936 fur-covered teacup, spoon, and saucer, entitled Object defies Breton’s dualistic paradigm, subversively and succinctly disclosing the story of women’s never-ending negotiation between culture and subjectivity, and public and private experience. Object discloses the physical intensity of female experience, especially at liminal thresholds and intersections—the piece is a succession of curved edges. Similarly, Ryan’s 2005 photograph Surface, depicts a moment of extreme sensitivity and sensuality. In Surface we see a woman’s neck submerged in nearly invisible water—sensation and form become one through perfect transparency. The human face is absent; voyeuristically we encounter the body by becoming witness to its experience, as opposed participant in the “reactions” of its reflexive subject. 


Ryan penetrates the traditional photographic object, while also privileging the photograph’s ability to do what only it can do—represent and frame “reality” while simultaneously presenting it as an estranged simulacrum of our own making, akin to Foucault’s concept of the heterotopia that creates an illusory space in order to expose the “real.” There is a deeply refreshing directness in Ryan’s relationship to photographs as photography, and Ryan work exists in distinction to many contemporary photographers such as Thomas Demand and Jeff Wall, whose complex installations and activities transform the photograph into a vehicle for discourse, but denude it of its autonomous, “way finding” qualities. Christopher Bedford describes this contemporary condition as one in which, “… the photograph is not independently productive of meaning but is rather the document that records and implies the extended process behind the image.” At its core, Ryan’s work is invested in photography’s autonomy, in its artistic position as a technology for the generation of meaning and experience—both conscious and unconscious. And like many photographer before her, Ryan intervenes in the material life of the photograph, exploring it as a site for material experimentation


In a recent essay entitled “Abstracting Photography,” photographer Walead Beshty addresses the pressing issue of photography’s materiality: “The truth of the matter is that all images require a material existence, and we must resist the urge to transform the material world into an image world. In this photographs appear key. This is not an either or choice, but a realization that images are indistinguishable from their material supports, one cannot exist without the other.” Ryan’s work is by nature a collaborative endeavor between material and image, including the body of the artist and her relationship with each ongoing, fluid aspect of her process, including the tremendous amount of research, both scientific and literary, that is a part of each project. By marking, staining, slicing and drawing on her carefully pieced photographs, Ryan imbues the work with a rarified urgency and pressure creating a lingering and often uncomfortable curiosity, nay, voyeurism; we are left feeling that we have witnessed something exquisitely private. Such intense sensitization ignites our desire to enter the Ryan’s poetic dream world, and to grasp why it is that the work haunts us so.



J.A. Baker, The Peregrine, XXX


Christopher Bedford, “Qualifying Photography as Art, or, Is Photography All It Can Be?” from the online site: Words Without Pictures,, © Los Angeles County Museum of Art


Walead Beshty, “Abstracting Photography,” from the online site: Words Without Pictures,, © Los Angeles County Museum of Art


Hal Foster, Compulsive Beauty. (Boston: MIT Press), 1995

bottom of page