My interest in art started at an early age, though my background and training was in theatre. I acted in plays all throughout high school, and I attended the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU where I trained to be an actor. The summer between my sophomore and junior years, I was an apprentice at Williamstown Theatre Festival in the Berkshires in Massachusetts where I worked on various crews which including scenic painting and during that summer I created a performance piece in a laundry room where viewers watched from outside the space through a window. It was the first time that I made my own work and I consider it a turning point in my career.
The next semester at NYU I took a performance art class where I continued to develop my own work; a process I found incredibly exciting and a nice departure from the straightforward acting I had been doing for several previous years. At the same time I took an art history course which I loved, and I slowly began to see the relationship between the performance work I was doing and how it was connected to visual art. My final year at NYU, I stopped acting all together and decided to get a second degree in Art History. I also directed two plays. One was a production of Antonin Artaud in which the audience was placed in a giant, moveable box, and the action happened around them. It was a project that challenged how space could be used in performance, and by the end of the project I realized my interest in theatre had diminished and that set design or installation art was what I wanted to do.
I got an internship at a gallery during my last semester in school, and shortly after graduating I got a part-time job working for an art collector. I started going to art galleries regularly, something I had never done while in school, and quickly I became quite enthralled with the New York art scene. I attended a lot of openings, dabbled in a few theatre and art projects, and took a sculpture class at SVA. In early 2006, I was given a small storefront space at Chashama where my friend Cecile Evans and I created an installation in which scenes from JD Salinger novels were acted out on TV monitors in the space. I originally considered it a theatre project (mainly because my collaborator and I went to theatre school together and also acted in the piece), but it was well received as an art installation and the New York Times wrote a story about it. Being described as an artist by a reputable source finally gave me the confidence to call myself one too.
Later that year I got a studio and began making work that used objects such as cinder blocks, curtains, and shipping pallets as frames for exhibiting photographs. This was a long-time interest of mine – combining imagery within objects. Much of my early work used images of male icons and blue-collar workers, and often served as monuments to workers and figures of labor. I placed images of people within unique objects to reveal something about the individual and also comment on the significance and symbolism of that particular object. I have since done a series of work that uses portraits of animals as well as landscapes, pairing the portraits with specific and appropriate objects as frames.
In 2010, I moved upstate and bought a car. As a California native, driving has always been something I’ve enjoyed – seeing the endless open road while being contained within my own private space. After taking the same drive in my weekly commute, I started to look forward to specific points in my journey, where I would sigh and delight in the combination of natural and man-made beauty at the most scenic spots along the road. I tried mounting my small Nikon SLR on the dashboard, though it didn’t seem to take the quality of shots I was looking for. One day, while crossing the road in front of my house upstate, the symmetry of the yellow and white lines and absence of cars gave me the impulse to take photographs – one to the left and one to the right. My camera lens functioned as a way to check both ways before crossing. The photos accurately captured the scene that had been in front of me so many times before through my windshield, and now I had it documented so it could be displayed on my computer monitor. But seeing it on a flat screen or even in printed form just didn’t do the image justice. I needed to make a container in order to view it properly, something that recreated what I had seen and experienced in a three dimensional form.
Photos by Alex Chohlas-Wood
Turning found objects into pictures frames has long been a part of my practice, and during a visit to Dia Art Foundation, the plywood boxes of Donald Judd struck me as an ideal (though financially and practically impossible) structure to use. The grain and color of the wood contrasted with the bright, realistic imagery in my photographs, and the shape and structure of the boxes made them a natural frame. In addition, the perspective of the white and yellow lines leading into the horizon was similar to the tunnel-like shapes used in some of Judd’s boxes.
I started constructing my own plywood boxes with the intention of displaying my photographs within them, making different shapes and sizes, each one paired with a specific set of images. While no two of my boxes are identical, they all have a few key similarities: a light bulb in the center, and they’re four-sided with two open ends, each side displaying a back-lit photo transparency. The two images are shot from the same location facing opposite directions, and their orientation in the boxes make them impossible to see at the same time – just as they were for me when taking the photographs.
The boxes hang on the wall, facing out, but their true subject matter exists on the sides. Viewers are encouraged to peer in, hunch down, bend over, or stand tall in order to see them thoroughly. The images capture a specific time and place, and the effort to view them is similar to that which I endured to take them. Each box gives insight to my own mind’s eye and is a model for a small part of the world in which I’ve lived.
For Handmade Frames, currently on view at The Invisible Dog Art Center, I have covered the two sets of windows with photo transparencies, transforming them into natural light boxes back-lit by the sun during daylight hours. Though architectural in scale, the installation functions in the same way as my plywood boxes: the images are related, placed at opposite ends of the structure, and they are lit by the same light source. Both the boxes and the window installation seek to find order within the chaos of the natural world, and they symbolize that we are all captured, contained, or protected in one structure or another.
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View more of Ryan’s work at www.ryanmfrank.com.