As an artist situated in the heart of the grand terrain of the Northwest, Wyoming sculptor Linda Ryan faced a challenge: how to approach and appreciate the landscape around her in a three-dimensional format. For Ryan, the answer was an almost entirely literal interpretation of her surroundings.
“I ended up treating it like an archeological dig,” she says. “It was practically scientific.”
In her current exhibit at the Missoula Art Museum’s Temporary Contemporary gallery, Deconstructed Memories, Ryan’s work maps her immediate surroundings, her house and neighborhood, as well as her broader hometown of Casper in a series of pieces that look, in fact, like artistic presentations of archeological digs. For instance, in “City of Casper” Ryan presents 18 separate plaques for various parts of the city, each one containing a photograph of the location, a copper heading with the address and elevation, and a capsule of soil and a rock recovered from the site set against a Global Positioning System printout of the area. In another, “Block 85, City of Casper,” Ryan collected items from her neighborhood street, categorized them by what she found in front of each home—a used rubber glove, grass clippings, bark, cigarette butts—and encased each assortment behind glass and within a molded plaster frame marked with the house’s address. A third piece on display is a detailed copper etching of a map of Wyoming with each county floating individually, disconnected from its neighbors, and accompanied by a site-specific thumbnail-sized mound of soil.
As it turns out, Ryan’s exhibit is less about the aesthetic quality of her work and more about the viewer’s recognition of the materials Ryan unearthed. What’d she find outside 1039 S. Elm St.? What’s so compelling about the detritus on the corner of Conwell and 8th Street? On the surface it appears too matter-of-fact to trigger deeper meaning, but Ryan claims her approach to three-dimensional landscapes reveals something two-dimensional art cannot.
“In a sense, it’s about the fact that we are not capable of capturing—there’s no way in hell that you can capture the essence of Begonia Street by this,” she says, pointing to one of her “City of Casper” plaques. “I don’t know if I’ve given too much information here. Maybe I have. But I think there’s an irony about it, and it speaks to the humility of the materials around us. Whether it’s a wrapper or a part of the soil or any of this stuff, I think we respond to the materials.”
Ryan’s literal interpretations of Casper led her to explore the more intimate items inside her own house. Deconstructed Memories also includes some of these pieces, such as “Dream Nest I and II,” a clay mold of her bed revealing the ruffles of the sheets on one part and the pattern of her mattress on the other. In “My Sanctuary” Ryan re-created her couch with steel pencil rods, and added likely-to-be-lost items such as pocket change visible underneath the cushions. For Ryan, studying personal items had much the same impact as her work mapping the city—letting tangible objects solicit personal recollections of a place.
“The way I see it, the house has its own memories and each of these pieces of furniture have their own memories,” she says. “There’s no way you can capture that, but you can preserve them somehow. It’s different than taking a picture. It’s a study in value.”
Ryan, an art professor at Casper College for more than 23 years, has family in Missoula, but she’s never lived in the Garden City. Nonetheless, in anticipation of her exhibit, MAM curator Stephen Glueckert collected materials from the construction site of the museum’s renovation on North Pattee Street and asked Ryan to develop a piece for donation. With only a limb from a tree removed during construction, brick from renovated parts of the old building and soil from the location, Ryan struggled with how to represent a site to which she had no immediate attachment.
“I’d never been there before, so I kept thinking, ‘Whose memory is this?’” she says. “I knew that the tree was important because it’s not there anymore, so I tried to make that prominent in the casting process. I wanted it to somehow serve as a memory of the site.”
The result is a cast of the materials inside a thick plaster frame, the same style that Ryan used for “Block 85” and “Dream Nest.” While the brick and soil are almost unrecognizable within the mold, providing more texture than context, the branch stands out prominently. Again, Ryan relies on the physical items to elicit personal reactions from each viewer.
“It’s like somebody taking a sample of your hair to capture your DNA,” she says of the materials she uses. “That sample may capture your DNA, but that doesn’t mean they capture who you are as a person or even what you look like. It’s a significant part of who you are, but it doesn’t even begin to explain what you are about.”
Linda Ryan’s Deconstructed Memories is on display at MAM’s Temporary Contemporary gallery through Saturday, Nov. 26. A gallery talk about the exhibit will be hosted Thursday, Oct. 27, at 5:30 PM, in conjunction with the museum’s Artini Thursday event.