Sometimes the surface you paint on is just a place to put the paint, but for artist John Ryan, "canvas" often becomes part of the work and deepens its effect. At his family's carpet-binding business, Ryan sees a lot of forklift pallets. He disassembles and re-assembles the wood slats to make flat-ish surfaces marked by splits and splinters and nail holes.
Ryan, who completed his BFA in painting at Ohio University in 2002, has been participating in group shows around town ever since. His first major solo show, Mug Shots and Millionaires, is at William Rupnik Gallery through November 22.
One wall is covered by dozens of what Ryan calls "conversation chickens." On small pieces of pallet wood, he doodles two-footed blobs with droopy, often dislocated eyes that roast pop culture in thought balloons filled with topical wit. "I have a successful meth lab, even in this economy," says one. "I take my Vicodin from my Michael Jackson Pez dispenser," says another.
But the title of the show refers to the main body of work, portraits based on mug shots of famous people — many of whom led tragic, complicated lives.
The portraits are in a variety of styles and show a range of skills. The ones on pallet wood are the most successful. They present their subjects as society's byproducts or cast-offs — just part of the material supply chain. There's Johnny Cash, arrested for drug possession, Jane Fonda for the assault of a Cleveland policeman during a protest. There's Vince "Sham Wow" Shlomi, arrested for felony battery after a fight with a prostitute. Plus Mike Tyson, James Brown, Sid Vicious, Jimi Hendrix and more.
The largest paintings — three by three feet — are on conventional stretched canvas and painted with acrylics. We see footballer Michael Vick, arrested for dog fighting; Mickey Rourke (the show's only mug in profile), arrested for DUI; and that wild-haired Nick Nolte shot. The three use the same technique — painting the face in multicolor blotches, which calls to mind LeRoy Neiman's style and, in the case of the Vick portrait, his color palate. These show the most precision and technical skill, but they don't have the same impact as the pieces on the flawed pallet-wood surfaces.