Mr. Mix-It

Mr. Mix-It

A black-and-white man carved from rolling hills, bird’s-eye cornfields and fat streaks of lightning gives new meaning to the phrase “double-breasted jacket.” Below a tense, corded neck, his suit splits off-center, leaving two ties cinched in two collars. Above the neck, two mouths, three noses and three sets of eyes evince various degrees of pain.

An aging woman with electric yellow irises wears an indecipherable expression beneath a vortex of hair pinned up like Lucille Ball’s. Shoulders shrouded in some poor animal’s fur, she casts a wavy, beet-purple shadow on coral-colored wallpaper patterned with snaking gold tendrils. A rhinestone earring twinkles, as do glassy eyes set with one plastic jewel apiece.

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Zigs and zags of opalescent pink and purple and a glittering blast of golden rainbow (or hot pink, depending on your angle) frame a young woman, maybe a starlet. Rimmed with peachy flesh, her eyes tilt up and away. Frozen-yogurt curls cascade below the crimped neckline of her dress. Long claw-like fingernails painted periwinkle blue extend from a curled hand attached to a bangled arm. A second woman’s face floats behind, with thick purple lips.

These are just a few of the parts local artist Ronnie Rysz has cast in his dualistic series of colorful and grayscale pop-art characters—a “village” he’s built off and on since 2006. Explaining the impulse that got him started, Rysz says he looked inward and found a rebel peering back. “I spent four years painting very pretty flesh… rendering really nice forms, glorifying and beautifying the figure,” he says. “Then I wanted to do the opposite.”

Mission accomplished—sort of. While the lines are ultra-heavy and the perspective is flattened, and while the color works in particular are stuffed to the gills—“It’s definitely overkill. And I was going for that—to create as much noise and distraction as possible,” Rysz explains—the very subjects he says are meant to contrast those “really nice forms” he created in school are themselves really nice forms. Lines are clean and striking and surfaces textured and layered, literally: pieces are composed of up to eight physical layers, Rysz estimates. The result is a set of complex portraits of undeniable beauty.

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On the other hand, “They’re supposed to be repulsive,” Rysz says, and I can see that, too. Embodying the empty aspirations and shallow artifices so often portrayed as meaningful and real within pop culture, Rysz cleverly endows his figures with a fitting, desperate motive. He says the narrative behind the characters, positioned “aggressively” within their frames, has them competing with each other for the viewer’s attention. Ultimately, the color series is satirical, “a response to the fraudulent culture that was happening in the aughts—in the banking system, in baseball, in politics,” he says, adding with a laugh, “There was a lot of South Park-watching, Daily Show-watching” at the time.

You can tell the black-and-white side of the series, which entered the picture after the initial color portrait series was put on hold for a while, is the work of the same artist. But the characters are more fragmented in spirit and the result of a more stripped-down, but still rather versatile, process. Like the first piece mentioned above, titled Best Go Watch Ya Front (2014, pictured third), these works feature characters in conflict with themselves, carrying opposing facial expressions held together by a pop-art take on motion blur—so, paradoxically crisp, because the lines are so heavy and defined. And whereas Rysz sums up the earlier color works as “mixed-media collages,” probably because it would take too long to mention every technique that went into them, he calls these later works “drawings,” though that also feels too reductive given the variety of techniques involved. The application methods alone for Front include brush, pen and ink, graphite, marker and even spray paint.

If these tactics and materials—also, ones used for the color works, like rhinestones, glitter and cut-and-pasted paper—sound humble for a fine artist, that’s deliberate. “Repurposing inexpensive, readily available materials is paramount in my practice,” Rysz says.

That extends to his latest body of work: Default Notice. Marking a return to collage, albeit a much more intricate form of it, these pieces use “the security patterns found in the interiors of envelopes from bank and credit card statements, representations of American currency, stocks, bonds, barcodes… and other financial ephemera,” plus maps of Connecticut, to depict actual foreclosed homes located around New Haven.

The idea, he says, is to register “the fragility of ownership, revealing the casualties of the burst housing bubble and continuing the conversation about financial practices and protections in post-recession America.” The works ping the crash of 2008 and make its still-reverberating effects feel personal and local. Rysz hopes to achieve more immediate visceral effects, too—for example, provoking in the viewer “the anxiety of a bill received in the mail.”

The aesthetic effect is subtle, then enthralling. The approach puts a singular focus on the minute institutional cross-hatches and tiled patterns that, despite constantly passing right under our noses, we rarely if ever consciously examine. The way Rysz has diced and configured them, using pattern, color and positioning to create depth and texture, the intended depiction of homes is unmistakable. But it’s like you’re seeing them as 3D coded constructions, The Matrix-style. There are even “glitches” in this matrix: Rysz, using Google Maps’s street view for reference while painstakingly collaging a given house, has adopted a quirk of the way the software presents its images. “There’s funky seaming that happens ,” he says, “which I really appreciate and have incorporated into the work.” That’s why, for instance, in the piece 723 George Street (2015, pictured eighth), the roof line suddenly jumps in spots, as do the home’s second-floor balcony and front door.

Since an exhibition at DaSilva Gallery this past October, what hasn’t been sold has been hung up in Rysz’s New Haven apartment, just steps away from his studio, where a well-stocked wall of tools belies the extraordinarily interdisciplinary nature of his work. Nearby are Rysz’s remaining villagers, vying for his attention. And maybe they’ll get it again, someday. He says projects he puts on hiatus—usually because a new and very different endeavor’s taken hold—still tend to kick around his studio and his cranium, sometimes spurring him to “resurrect the narrative, or apply something completely new to it that I didn’t see before.”

After all, Rysz likes to mix things up. He doesn’t want to be “beholden to any one style for an entire career,” he says. “That would definitely bore me to death.”

Ronnie Rysz
(203) 517-7237 |

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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