Paintings without Irony: Ryan Cobourn’s Pastorale at Nancy Margolis Gallery, in conjunction with a Slow Art talk by Jennifer Samet, Ph.D.

February 23rd, 2014  |  Published in *, February 2014, On View

by Matthew Metzger

Editors Note: Aeqai receives an increasingly large number of press releases for exhibitions in other cities.  So we thought we would experiment, and try to review one from afar, without the direct experience of seeing it live.  The first review, by Matt Metzger, is of a show by Ryan Coburn at the Nancy Margolis Gallery in New York, in conjunction with a talk by New York professor, critic and gallerist  Jennifer Samet, Ph.D.  We will review shows like this from time to time.

Ryan Cobourn’s paintings dance on the precipice of a familiar scene – a landscape, a flower, an animal we can’t quite place – pushing us out in intentional flatness then pulling us in with hope that one more brushstroke, a tiny tonal variation, a form minutely changed might disclose the secret scene to us. We’re helpless in front of these paintings unless we fill in the blanks ourselves. This process of filling in, a guess really, is pure joy for the viewer. Or we can choose not to fill the void, conjuring another feeling altogether.  Remaining helpless (if one has the discipline to do so) is more sublime than joyful, but in the end perhaps more enlightening as one grows comfortable in the strange space between knowing and not knowing. Of course, this is all about the familiar interplay between abstraction and representation, and Cobourn wields this tension gracefully and with purpose.

Ryan Cobourn – The Swan, 2013, Oil on Canvas, 60″x66″ – Images courtesy of Ryan Cobourn and Nancy Margolis Gallery

In The Swan, the coagulation of white occupying a space just above and right of the canvas center may indeed be a figure of some sort (a swan, perhaps upside-down, in homage to Baselitz?), surrounded by thickly applied greens, blues and pinks. A landscape of trees, leaves, water, and a setting sun dissipating across the entire 60”x66” canvas, like a later Turner?  Another allusion, purposeful or not, is to the Chinese painting notion that the essence of the painting’s subject should be translated into the movements of the artist’s arm and mark making. In Cobourn’s paintings, Cobourn’s mark making and the paint itself is always on the move much like trees, leaves, water, setting suns and swans. The paint, the painted and the painter merge into a single rhythmic movement. The dance between abstraction and figuration (with these paintings leaning toward the former) complements the movement of the paint in yet another “subtextual” dance.

Ryan Cobourn – Walking Around, 2013, Oil on canvas, 40″x48″ – Images courtesy of Ryan Cobourn and Nancy Margolis Gallery

Cobourn’s work is rooted in modernism and even romanticism (refreshingly, he’s unafraid to admit so).  He openly talks about his influences, properly building from their work to create his own unique painterly language (rather than appropriating from the past, a practice that’s perhaps had its day). According to Cobourn, some of these influences are Cezanne, Soutine, De Kooning, Guston, Monet, Van Gogh, Turner, Joan Mitchell, “Chinese and Japanese painters of just about any century” (admittedly, a rather broad reference), early American abstractionists, and contemporaries Leon Kossoff, Bill Jensen and Eric Aho. These are painter’s painters, as is Cobourn. His references in paint to these predecessors are subtle, if intentional at all. More likely, any similarities aren’t formal nods to these masters but instead happy accidents resulting from likenesses of temperament and purpose.

Ryan Cobourn – Romp, 2013, Oil on canvas, 64″x42″ – Images courtesy of Ryan Cobourn and Nancy Margolis Gallery

For all the references (allusions really) to modernism and romanticism, these paintings have a jubilant newness to them, a contemporaneity that sets aside post-modern cynicism for sincerity, disinterestedness for vulnerability.  They may even be a little bit sentimental, as if to say: tough, life is sentimental and I’ll trade cool detachment for the grit of life any day. One can’t help but get an overriding feeling of forthright optimism from Cobourn’s work. The paintings are without irony and unabashedly themselves, like it or not.

Ryan Cobourn – Chasing Bonnard, 2013, Oil on canvas, 20″x24″ – Images courtesy of Ryan Cobourn and Nancy Margolis Gallery

The “Slow Art” talk held by Jennifer Samet in conjunction with Pastorale is also optimistic (note that both Samet and Cobourn are relatively young). It borrows its nomenclature from the “slow food” movement[1] and if it seems simplistic that’s only partly correct in the sense that most good ideas are in fact simple. To Samet, slow art is not about art made slowly (although it can be that), but about a viewer giving an artful object time to reveal itself. Or, as Samet puts it, giving the art “the gift of time.”  She argues that given time and patience good art can reveal itself even to a viewer with no knowledge of the history from which the work comes.  This is a formalist idea, but also an idea that challenges the presumption of the linearity of art history, which is a decidedly non-formalist notion. More pragmatically, the whole “slow movement” recognizes that it’s not pastiche or a romantic naive yearning to want to simplify one’s life. Instead, it’s a rather contemporary desire in an increasingly complex world.

With these paintings and the slow art notion, a garden comes to mind. The analogy of course isn’t mine, and in the exhibition catalogue Cobourn states that he “thinks of the canvas as a garden, lush and sensual.”[2]  To build on the analogy (or allusion), a simple garden takes time, a vision and the discipline to tend it. Things often don’t work out and what does work is usually through a dirty trial and error process and a building upon the work and ideas of others. When things finally do work out in the little garden our modesty doesn’t allow us to talk about it.  There is a melancholy in knowing that the little bit of garden poetry we’ve cultivated can’t be explained but only felt, and only by those who are ready to “give it the gift of time”.

Matthew Metzger is an artist, designer and furniture maker based in Cincinnati.  His paintings are represented locally by Miller Gallery, and his furniture by Voltage, as well as other galleries and design showrooms nationally.  His website is at

[1] The slow food movement got its start in Rome in protest to the opening of a McDonalds, and promotes local, sustainable and traditional gastronomy and food production.

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