Liza Ryan: Consciousness Flotation Device
by Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer
The Unreal Real artist monograph, 2018
I tie my Hat—I crease my Shawl—
Life’s little duties do—precisely—
As the very least
Were infinite—to me—
So much depends upon finely calibrated regimes of attention. Or, ecologically speaking, different species of attention. More and more, as distraction overwhelms and bright pixels glint like lures hooking darting eyes, the question is one of clearing space, staying put, modifying depth of field, and adjusting my lens. Zooming in. Isolating simple juxtapositions of detail shots. Privileging anti-spectacle. Applying the poet’s tactics, that way the banal can be extreme, the domestic can be explosive. I want less flash and more private perspectives, more nonhuman or hyperhuman vantages that describe passed-over moments of in betweenness. Parked at my desk, as usual, stuck on a scrolling screen, I yearn for the view from a tuft of grass or a glimpse through a bough heavy with darkly shimmering leaves. At summer’s noon hour, I dream back to that familiar yet retreating image of the just-past, seen from a pillow, of my love’s back as he sleeps in bed. Asleep and locked within himself, he is at his most animal, and this is my favorite way to see him, when breath and mass and softness take over—when my stare disturbs none of this fugitive abandon.
Everything, yes, everything comes down to constructing a highly personal practice of intentional attention giving and the careful study of how such attention, despite its fragility and because of its transformational potency, determines the scope of somatic existence and its meaning. Attention is willfully determined, self-schooled, and also often sudden, striking awareness without warning—an electric bolt. And when the surprising sensory intensity of a seemingly innocuous and easy-to-miss, otherwise unremarkable optical moment rings out like a siren’s call, Liza Ryan answers with an image.
Ryan’s is a practice of alertness and quiet fascination in the off hours of solitude. Lavishly, caressingly observed details of the banal or peripheral or close at hand are her everyday genius—bravely composed in their understatement. She homes in, cropping as she goes, on the unchecked drama gathered in a mass of crumpled sheets and shirt, dimly lit. She proves the undemanding grandeur of sunlight flashing off a handheld mirror or in a palm’s cupping of liquid; time and again, she is bewitched by surface tension. She defamiliarizes the subtle complexity suffused in and under small patches of skin magnified in close-ups—pale and veined, creased and flecked with splotches and follicles and moles. We are brought so close to the enlarged fragment of a neck’s nape (a favorite region of her imaginary), with wisps of hair fringing its nakedness, that we may gasp to not breathe down it. Around here, my mind walks on tiptoe.
Peoplewise, the work is spare but not unpopulated. The only crowds are avian or vegetal. When fellow bodies appear, they are singular and framed as incomplete parts and pieces of a person—pushed too close to see it all. The solo, one-on-one focus produces a coupling between who is pictured and she who is doing the picturing, the looking. (As a rule rarely broken, Ryan only photographs people she is close to, friends and family.) A relationship forms, and we occupy Ryan’s vantage, becoming her surrogate and taking the position of lover, mother, child, and sometimes stranger or predator. Intimacy is forced upon the viewer. While her prints and videos are presented in a wide range of sizes, she confesses to me that she prefers to print small. Condensed and jewel-like, her most petite pictures seem to retreat and tease a distance that draws me closer still, pulling in for a kiss. The wonders of relative scale and telescoping vision take over, and we get lost in small areas of local incident. Fixed upon with the right proximity, any frame becomes a galaxy.
If these pictures had an aroma, they might smell of cut grass and rich, loamy soil, honeysuckle and magnolia, crushed ice and moldy peach, pomegranate and almond, molasses and oil, sun-dried laundry and smoke, dog fur and dark wood, old wallpaper glue and worn floorboards, cotton and moss, dried leaves and rotting flesh, blood and milk, damp fog and falcon feathers. Or at least that’s what I like to imagine their aroma would be. Then again, the storied American South can seem about as foreign, exotic, and mysteriously alluring to me as Thailand or Tunisia or Trinidad. I’ve never lived in Virginia, where the artist grew up. I was not formatively molded by a grandmother from Alabama keeping alive shadow traditions of regional magic and ritual. Her grandmother modeled for Ryan a life defined in relation to nature, uncommon eccentrics, and animals. Her mother was a poet and professor, a devoted reader in language’s thrall; to her daughter, she passed on these loves. She died young at fifty-seven. The sting of tragedy, its dull ebbing and enduring sense of loss, directs Ryan’s eye and fortifies her aesthetic desire. They were close, these three generations of women; they were tightly bound. Despite having lived and worked for many years in Southern California, something of this Southern gothic inheritance persists in Ryan’s ripe and redolent photos. Her vision seems steeped in a pale, humid, sweet-smelling smoke. Drawl is rendered optical with long holds on each visual syllable, entrancing attenuation, and the lull of an unhurried, cruising eye.
I’m thinking of She could barely contain herself (2010): a tabletop still life of loose, lanky, leafy peonies (or are they dahlias?) in a cut-glass pitcher, decorated in an antique manner. Still-tight buds and firework flower heads burst white and pink, locating us seasonally with their prized blooms. A tangle of leaves and stems brims out of the center. But, most of all, too-bright sunlight streams in from a background window to set the vase aglow like a lightbulb and bleach a big, blank sunspot in the film. Deep, dark shadow all around secures the small scene’s chiaroscuro and nested solitude.
Or Surface #2 (2002): an overextended frieze of a print that shows a woman’s pale right arm, from pit to elegant fingertip, partially submerged and floating upturned on dark Prussian blue waters with spare ripples and lighter patches reflecting the sky. The water’s edge draws thin new contours on her skin. A seam slices through above the wrist. The pinkish hand curls lightly as it reaches. The elongation is extreme, extending more than four feet and confounding anatomy. Its mannerism is pronounced, alluding to Robert Mapplethorpe with his self-portraits’ long-right-arm proclivities. The severing of arm from body is denaturing, and the voluptuous vulnerability of unfurled limb and exposed flesh in water, floating in a pond or creek, recalls Ophelia and her corpsification, adrift in drowning depths. Ryan’s sensibility is Romantic in the literary sense, gesturing at times toward Pre-Raphaelian beauty and containing witchy, ominous, ghostly aspects.
When sleep is fantasized, elevated, and idolized as aesthetic preoccupation, we aren’t surprised to find insomnia hovering in the wings. Lack turns the desired object into fetish. For much of her life, the artist has been an insomniac. I try to imagine the chronic insomniac’s headspace: it is swirling, peeling off on a tear, jittery and unsatisfied, strung out and hallucinatory, spent but unsettled. It courses with the shattered monologic, spiraling energy of long sleepless nights, the snowballing momentum of loops and ricocheting self-reflection—the build without the release. It fills up with vacant stares at blank walls and ceilings in the dark, willing screens for projection. It lurches with a jonesing hunger that will not be satisfied. To a sound sleeper like myself, the curse—a combination of hyperactivity and fatigue, wakefulness and unfulfilled surrender—is easily exoticized and charged with its own romantic frisson as a hyperbolic state of too-much-being. I see both the appeal, if only in theory, and trauma of riding a racing mind that can’t be stopped or dismounted, a brain that refuses to turn off.
Her sleeplessness perpetually seeks stillness, emptiness, quiet, and calm—qualities she finds and frames momentarily in sweet spots of the everyday and, most severely, most recently, in the austere landscapes of Antarctica, where she slept her best sleep in ages. I get it; I have fantasies of doing less. I also desire inert and alert solitude. I, too, believe in the primacy of unexpected pleasures that cannot be achieved but must be received by waiting through empty and observant openness. Her practice holds in its sight the wakefulness of lucid dreaming and the aspirational release of sleeping bodies, or bodies daydreaming of sleep—of dreams once removed.
Why is wind so crucial to think about? Because of its sonics. Because of its lift and flow. Because we feel it, we produce it in our body bellows, but only see it obliquely through displacement or contamination, opacification, and condensation: smoke, breath, and fumes—the vapors. Ryan tracks the power of invisible forces that are observed indirectly by their effect on surrounding matter, the secondary movements they generate. A year before his death, D. W. Griffith summed up his lifetime of cinematic wisdom in an exacting lament: what modern movies lacked, he said, was the wind in the trees, the moving beauty of wind blowing on blossoms in the trees. Qualities of sound, season, and light often constitute the dominant impressions and polemical subtexts of Ryan’s photographs and infinitely looping videos: murmur, hush, hum, and quiver. Her photographic eye is always trained on the invisible. It is always touching the air and swells of light, reaching for weather and other things that resist reproduction. Taking the Eadweard Muybridgean tradition and pushing it in another direction, her pictures allow us to witness what we otherwise could not.
Environment becomes an extension of the seeing subject, an expansive part of Ryan’s bodily sphere. Scenes are often rural and pastoral. Time, too, as season or time of day, is developed as environmental aspect, while historical time is notably vague and unmarked throughout. These photos lack telltale signs of contemporaneity or datable artifacts; they could have been shot yesterday or some generations ago. Ryan seeks pictorial features that outlast a human lifespan. With her, we are not firmly located in time, but instead seem to orbit around a recent past, a lost time of aleatory, outdoor pleasures. Freely intermixing black-and-white with color images across series and within single works, she creates fluctuations of memory that oscillate in concert with uneven saturation.
Ryan chooses intimacy and invisibility over identity every time. She refuses, with rare exception, to represent the distinctive, recognizable features of a person—her refusal suggesting a challenge to presumed measures of recognizability and what we think we mean by recognition in the first place, as though every time we look, we are seeing that thing for the first time. The aversion is strong; she consistently turns away from faces to necks and shoulders, down to feet, ground, hands, lap, grass, path, and street. She avoids particular personalities and the direct address of straight portraiture, preferring instead to dwell on details cropped into abstraction. The artist has clarified, “Identity seems insignificant and potentially distracting from what I’m trying to do.” Her emphasis, rather, is on the small parts that are soft and unprotected, tricky to identify, and easily confused for one another—common, impersonal, decontextualized, specific to the species as a whole but not an individual I could identify.
This anonymity—lyrical and full of pathos—is a deep part of her sensibility. Not only is she committed to banal-but-precise, abstracted subjects, but the camera celebrates a kind of commonness that plays off familiar tropes and clichés to address shared patterns of photographic desire with which many of us can identify: it’s like Sam Taylor Wood once told me, clicking through a slide show of her early work, “Every teenage girl with a camera takes pictures of her feet.” That kind of commonality is not something to run away from, it’s something to work with; such pictorial instincts prove to be material of their own, a cultural literacy through which to universalize her personal.
Still, I keep getting smaller and smaller. With any amount of perspective at all, spatial or temporal, our individual smallness and brevity quickly approaches nothingness. This has always been a hugely liberating thought to me, depressurizing the overinflated bag of self and opening it out onto the rest of the world. My own outrageous insignificance is a deep comfort and a great relief. Ryan reaches for a radical sameness in what she depicts. She ventures out of body and across skin, thinking of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who dissolves the dichotomy between inside and outside—“Visible and mobile, my body is a thing among things; it is caught in the fabric of the world, and its cohesion is that of a thing. But because it moves itself and sees, it holds things in a circle around itself. Things are an annex or prolongation of itself; they are incrusted into its flesh, they are part of its full definition; the world is made of the very stuff of the body.” Vision, body, and the world are constantly flowing into and through each other. They are the same “fabric,” the same “flesh.” Ryan depicts flickers of self in old domestic interiors: a cot, faded paint on a wall, supple branches and dark leaves, or even the epic otherness of a vast icescape. It was there, in Antarctica, among the continent’s community of scientific researchers, that she felt her own smallness most forcefully—and most joyfully.
The eye drifts from center stage to rest on the margins because that’s where she finds the visual and mental space to think, to reflect, to slow down and consider: “My remembered images seem peripheral and banal—they are the edges of shocking or emotionally charged events—but I have no clear recollection of the details of the central event, only details of the surroundings.” The edges are our entry, and sometimes we never get past the threshold. She says they are “easier to look at than the ‘main event.’” In fact, representing the difficulty and even impossibility of looking directly at things is one of her greatest projects. We feel the pull and internal conflict of needing and wanting to look but having to look away, and vice versa—at its split core, looking is both a source of boundless pleasure (love) and irreparable damage, haunting sights that can’t be unseen. Elizabeth Hardwick, in Sleepless Nights, writes, “If only one knew what to remember or pretend to remember.” Yes, but thank god we don’t, or rather we may know what we’re supposed to or hope to remember, but we can’t yet know what we will remember; we have to find that out in real time, as the years pass. I never know ahead of time what will matter most and affect me longest, or why, and this unpredictability is most profoundly mine. To experience genuine surprise at one’s own psychological inner workings, after a lifetime of being me, is an out-of-body high, a falling in love with the unruliness and unknowability of one’s self as though I were another.
Ryan is not interested in documentary photography per se. She prioritizes how a place, a moment, felt over how it looked. Sometimes the brightness of light is all that matters, as in the blinding white spots that blast through her serial pursuit of the “exploded moment.” Mood, tone, ambience, and atmosphere are primary, treated seriously as rigorous subjects to describe because the emotions and attitudes of the observer are also facts that must be truly recorded. The elusive vitality of an acutely remembered feeling can flare up in pictures. In single-frame, multipart, or collaged works, sense of place builds into a phantom wave, transportive—the feeling of being surrounded and being in a surrounding is more than just wistful or warm, it also triggers dislocation and fragmentation, anxiety and trauma: “I read somewhere that early man remembered the circumstances (like time of day or location) surrounding an attack to protect and prepare them for future attacks. The idea that preparation for attack number two takes precedence over the memory of the initial attack is interesting to me.” If her pictures were words, they would stay on the tip of my tongue.
When Ryan lost her mother and grandmother, both around the same time, the falcon flew to her. The poignant timing of the encounter could not be ignored. It carried too much psychological force. It seemed summoned by pain, a fierce-beaked figure of transcendence and seemingly gravity-defying flight. In fact, the bird’s eerie presence affirmed itself on other occasions at several pivotal points in her life, appearing as a sign, both portent and auspice. What to do with an omen? A manifestation or projection of personal upheaval and emotional crisis, her unspoken, unspeakable relationship with the bird centers on a search for sign, symbolism, and metaphor that can manage pain with newfound meaning. The falcon and the falconer: Ryan studied the birds and the humans who handle them; she got close and took sharp pictures against blue sky, accentuating the feathered rounding of the falcon’s aerodynamic head and wing as the animal turned away or curled into itself. She juxtaposes bird and woman in motion in Sight Unseen (2008), a large, split-screen corner video projection where falcon (on the left, in color) and woman (on the right, in black and white) speed toward the corner and each other, chasing an imminent, ecstatic, high-energy collision on infinite loop. Ryan teases the promise and prospect of an impossible fusion through mutually obliterating impact. Time and again, the artist expresses “a need for release from our body and to cross over the boundary created by the skin.” The striving is the thing.
When I visited the artist in her backyard studio, aglow with natural light filtering in through high windows and surrounded by flowering plants and chirping birds, she pointed me to J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine from 1967, an amazingly detailed, effusive, and poetically descriptive recounting of the author’s obsessive daily tracking of several peregrine falcons over the valleys and flat fenlands of coastal East Anglia during one migratory season from autumn to spring. Through it, one understands something more about the pursuit, the immersion, and the visceral out-of-body sensations Ryan seeks. A quality of curiosity and being overtaken by animal wonder is at stake. Through Baker’s dated entries, the importance of dailiness, persistence, patience, and solitude frame an artistic practice in terms of the cumulative evidence of a strong infatuation and diaristic passion, a lived frame of mind that’s experienced privately and internally all the time but only seldom shared with others.
Perhaps most of all, The Peregrine describes a one-sided love affair—“I came late to the love of birds” —which pushes the subject to the edge of his humanity, driving him to attempt an interspecies mind meld, beaming into another physiological state of perception and phenomenological existence altogether. Baker writes: “Like the seafarer, the peregrine lives in a pouring-away world of no attachment, a world of wakes and tilting, of sinking planes of land and water. We who are anchored and earthbound cannot envisage this freedom of the eye.” His efforts to imagine that alien vision and the effort by itself expands capacity, wondering what it would be like to possess the bird’s optical powers: “If our eyes were in the same proportion to our bodies as the peregrine’s are to his, a twelve stone man would have eyes three inches across, weighing four pounds. The whole retina of a hawk’s eye records a resolution of distant objects that is twice as acute as that of the human retina . . . endlessly scanning the landscape with small abrupt turns of his head, will pick up any point of movement; by focusing upon it he can immediately make it flare up into larger, clearer view.” From Baker, we learn the force of will exerted in wanting to embody another way of being, to aspire with such intensity as to become—perhaps destroy—the love object, for destruction and annihilation always cut through narratives of becoming.
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 a 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.
Compassionate misanthropy can launch desire outward, away from the human and toward the many other nonlingual life forms that are routinely instrumentalized, tortured, and slaughtered by human recklessness. Emanating as a lament, the desire is a doomed yearning for communion with the wide, vibrating world beyond and before pavement and plastic. In an undercurrent throughout The Peregrine, Baker expresses a deep disgust with the human, and the half century since he wrote only adds terrible weight to his disinclination: “I have always longed to be a part of the outward life, to be out there at the edge of things, to let the human taint wash away in emptiness and silence as the fox sloughs his smell into the cold unworldliness of water; to return to the town as a stranger. Wandering flushes a glory that fades with arrival.” The humanity that accrues across Ryan’s various bodies of work is an identity even Baker could rejoice in: privileging observation and curiosity over intervention, simultaneously self-distanced by consciousness and utterly enmeshed by body and matter; a small animal thing, not apart but always immersed and alert.
1. Opening stanza of poem no. 443. Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (Boston: Little, Brown, 1961), page 212.