Catherine Ryan

Oakland, Painter // February 2012
I’ve always been particularly interested in fear-driven patterns, mass mentality, and the need to control and conquer, especially within the context of nature and religious rituals.

Catherine’s studio is in her Oakland apartment in a sectioned off, modest space in her bedroom. It’s cramped, but it does the trick, and she values the convenience of working at home. Catherine seemed shy, with a quiet but steady voice. She took time expressing herself, often opting for extended and almost-awkward silences before finally verbalizing her thoughts. I know I put her on the spot a few times by asking questions that weren’t the easiest to answer, and instead of letting her off the hook, I just waited. She was a good sport, and came through with some very interesting observations. We discussed her current paintings and the physical gestures often referenced in them— bowing bodies, clasped hands, reaching arms. She’s always on the lookout for photos, catalogues, advertisements, and movie moments that present people caught in everyday postures because it’s in these actions she finds inspiration. Catherine used to work at a photo developing center and over time she noticed no matter what the context, people repeated the same set of gestures over and over. The presence of these ubiquitous postures in her work reveals a curiosity about how and why people engage in recurrent behaviors, not just as individuals but also within families, communities, religion, governments, and in response to the natural environment. Because the people in Catherine’s paintings are often faceless and the situations are indeterminate, the gestures stand out even more, seemingly loaded with cryptic messages. By infusing familiar body language and surroundings with ambiguity, Catherine brings forth an unexpected tension in her work. Her paintings created disquiet in me and provoked a rising anxiety about my own weaknesses, and those of humanity’s at large. It was an unsettling and eerie feeling, but one that also expanded my sense of wonder about the world I live in.

On February 28th look for Catherine’s work on Buy Some Damn Art, a recent project founded by Kate Singleton of Art Hound. Buy Some Damn Art aims to make original and affordable work by under-the-radar artists available to a new generation of art buyers. Shows launch every week and are online for a total of 6 weeks.

When people ask you what you “do”, how do you answer?
I usually just say, “I’m an artist.”

Do you have a day job? What is it? What does it mean to you?
I also do freelance web design and editing, which means I can make art without feeling the pressure of having to make money off of it and even more importantly, it means my time is my own and I don’t have to answer to anyone. I have a handful of clients that keep me pretty busy. I do miss the health benefits and regular paycheck from a “real job.” But I tried going back to a 40-hour-a-week office job a couple of years ago and it was sort of deadening. So I really value the freedom of the way I work now.

What mediums do you work with? How would you describe your subject matter? What themes seem to occur/reoccur in your work?
I mostly use acrylic and charcoal on paper. Though lately I’ve been using gouache and graphite as well.

My subject matter is pretty broad, but I feel that at the core of it I’m trying to understand the ways that human beings deal, and have dealt, with the aspects of the world that they don’t understand. I’ve always been particularly interested in fear-driven patterns, mass mentality, and the need to control and conquer, especially within the context of nature and religious rituals.

How do you navigate the art world?
I think my navigation of the art world has evolved a lot over the last 10 years. Right now I’m getting into a place where I don’t put a lot of pressure on myself to feel like I need to do things a certain way. I’m just trying to focus on making the best work I can and seeing what opportunities come my way that fit with how I do things. I spent a few years freaking out about my career and comparing myself to other artists. But all that did was stress me out and prevent me from making good work. It’s also really important for me to a have a balance between all aspects of my life with art. I love making art and going to see art and supporting my friends, but there are social aspects of the art world that I find kind of gross and overwhelming. I don’t want my social interactions to be about my art career, I’d like to keep those things separate.

What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
For me, having a studio in my home is important. I’ve learned that I need to feel really comfortable where I work in order to be able to create, even if that means my space is on the smaller side. I’ve had studios in other locations, but always ended up working at home anyway. I’m not saying my current studio is ideal, but I do like the comfort and immediacy of it. If I want to get out of bed and start working on something at 2 a.m., I can.

Has there been a shift or change in your life or work that has led to what you’re making now?
In the last six months I’ve been making smaller pieces and I’ve been working with gouache. The speed at which I can make work with gouache and graphite is amazing. I can make about three pieces in a week, as opposed to my acrylic paintings which are so layered and therefore very time-consuming. I’ve also recently started to move away from the use of animals in my work. Currently, I’m more interested in people’s behavior and their rituals, and less interested in how people interact with nature.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
For the first time in a while I don’t have any shows scheduled and am really looking forward to finally finishing a body of work that I started almost two years ago. I’ve also had some ideas for animations rattling around in my head that I’m getting ready to make which is very exciting.

What are you most proud of?
Just that I’m able to make work and have it be seen by other people. I’ve wanted to be an artist since I was a little kid, so I feel really lucky to be doing what I’m doing.

What do you want your work to do?
On a very basic level I want people to get excited by the visuals, the technique, and the materials. I want my work to always retain enough ambiguity so that though my own point of view might come through, people will still have a lot of their own questions around the work.

Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
I will have six pieces available for sale at Buy Some Damn Art beginning February 28th, 2012.
I also have work in the Girlcore Magazine 2012 book, recently put out by PogoBooks.

To see more of Catherine’s see work: