It’s fun to think about painting as alchemy—the transformation of matter—while mixing ground pigment with binder and applying the concoction to cotton or wood. This can be done using infinite numbers of ratios and methods to achieve myriad results. If you think about it while walking through an art museum, it almost seems like magic.
Ryan Fenchel’s colorful paintings reflect an awareness of this. In fact, he lists alchemy along with mythologies and secret societies as inspirations for his current exhibition at Carrie Secrist Gallery. These references pop in but they don’t actively drive meaning. His use of vessels as his longtime subject, for example, easily lends itself to symbolic readings but also serves as a simple starting point for experimentation with shape, color and texture. They inhabit the canvas together in rows, like alien hieroglyphs, without touching one another or the edges. With each having its own unique qualities, it’s tempting to personify them. They could be crime suspects in a lineup or moms in line at the grocery store.
The contemporary compositions are bolstered by their kinship with Modernism. Fenchel’s use of the scumbling technique—vigorously rubbing a relatively dry, stiff paintbrush around on a painted surface to create a soft but broken-down texture, revealing the layers underneath—calls to mind mid-century artists Leon Golub and Joan Miró. Familiar cues go back further even, to Odilon Redon, again with the softness along with a recurring delicate flower motif. These nostalgic aesthetic nods give the work a reverential feel.
In the meantime, all this masterful paint-handling makes up odd compositions. The shapes are lumpy and awkward and the works bear an uncanny stiffness. But that unease is exactly what makes the work interesting, and what makes it distinctly Fenchel’s. Despite the heavy name, “The Adept Wept” is lighthearted yet sophisticated. Sure, it’s not magic, but it’s charming as hell. (Kelly Reaves)
Ryan Fenchel’s “The Adept Wept” shows through March 4 at Carrie Secrist Gallery, 835 West Washington.