[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Siddhartha Mitter (The New York Times) writes, “At 65, the British artist based in New York is in the Whitney Biennial and on the Turner Prize shortlist. Her sculptures blend strange and common items to make sense of the world.” [Personally, I have been in love with Ryan’s soursop, custard apple, and breadfruit since I saw photos of it in 2021. See previous post Custard apple, breadfruit and soursop sculptures honor Windrush Generation.] Here are excerpts from Mitter’s article:
A soursop. A breadfruit. A custard apple. Incongruously large but otherwise realistic, the three sculptures of tropical fruit sit right on the ground in a busy pedestrian plaza in the Hackney section of London, as if the produce had tumbled from a grocer’s stand and magically expanded on the pavement.
The work of the artist Veronica Ryan, they honor the Windrush generation — the half-million immigrants who arrived from Britain’s colonies in the Caribbean between 1948 and the early 1970s and who settled, joined the work force, raised families.
Ryan herself is a daughter of Windrush, born in the Caribbean island of Montserrat in 1956. She arrived with her family as a child and watched them struggle, with whole sections of London unsafe for Black people. “My parents had a difficult time navigating a very racist postwar situation in England,” she said. But there were also spaces of safety. One was Ridley Road Market in Hackney, which had become largely Caribbean, serving the needs and tastes of the growing community.
So when the Hackney local council issued a call for public art in 2020 — part of a push to commemorate the Windrush generation after a major scandal over the wrongful detention and deportation of hundreds of its members decades after their legal arrival — Ryan did not go for a grand monument or heroic statuary. Instead, her oversized fruits evoke that childhood salve, and the sense of people asserting a home.
Ryan, 65, is earning belated recognition herself, on both sides of the Atlantic. In New York, her base since the 1990s, she is in the current Whitney Biennial and has an exhibition at the Paula Cooper Gallery in Chelsea. In Britain, her Hackney sculptures and a 2021 show at the Spike Island art center in Bristol vaulted her onto the shortlist for the 2022 Turner Prize.
Ryan’s objects serve a winning blend of familiar and mysterious. In the Hackney sculptures, the perception shift involves scale. A bit smaller, and the fruits would get lost; larger, and they would be grotesque. “You recognize what they are but they start to take on an abstract form as well,” she said. “I quite like the way that it has these different realities.”
Her works on view in New York showcase odd combinations of common materials — some found, some modified, some cast in bronze or plaster so precisely that they look like the real thing — suggesting a hidden grammar of daily life. A cocoa pod nestles in the hollow of a medical pillow. A stack of takeout boxes is topped by bead necklaces in pink netting. Packing blankets rolled like a pastry reveal, in the central hollow, seed packets stitched on like barnacles.
Small hybrid items sit just-so on shelving units. Others rest on the floor, or dangle from the ceiling. The list of materials is dizzying: Hairnets, mango stones, volcanic ash, orange peels, linoleum, dried coral, jute rug are just some of those in her current gallery show.
Ryan thinks through objects so as to understand herself — and the world. “I want to talk about psychological resonance, about the extended self, and how we relate to objects that relate to us and the wider culture,” she said in an interview at the gallery.
She is a gatherer and experimenter. “I collect a lot of stuff and cast things that look as though they might work,” she said. The studio is a movable concept: It can be her live-work space in the Westbeth Artists Housing complex in Manhattan, or wherever she travels. “I come from different places,” she said. “I carry bits of work with me wherever I go.”
Every material Ryan uses draws on private history. In the early 1980s, after studies at the Bath Academy of Art and the Slade School of Fine Art, she was casting small pods that nestled into recesses on bronze works; the play with cocoons, platforms and receptacles, which continues into her recent soft sculptures, began at a time of questioning how she belonged — and how others categorized her — in the world.
From the outset, Ryan said, she was uncertain where she belonged. Her career took off fast but was bifurcated between the establishment — she was the only Black artist in a Tate showcase of emerging sculptors in 1984 — and the alternative scene, where she took part in several influential shows of Black female artists.
While Black British creation was bubbling in the Thatcher years Ryan felt both inside and outside. “I was very aware of what was going on,” she said of the politics of the time, “but protecting my internal self.” People sought racial themes in her sculptures, but really, she said, “I was thinking about psychological boundaries — basically, how you survive.” [. . .]
In 1998, another residency brought Ryan to England, this time to the studio in St. Ives, Cornwall, once occupied by the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, who died in 1975. The sea and mild climate, shaped by the Gulf Stream, summoned inchoate memories of the Caribbean, opening up fresh ideas.
She became interested in how seeds travel on the water, an appealing metaphor in her own life. “Coconuts, for example, can travel across the ocean for three weeks, and then, if they find a good location, they’ll germinate,” she said. “So there’s something about travel and moving through history and different locations where things might find a natural habitat — or not.” [. . .]
[. . .] Three of her siblings died by suicide. In 1995 the volcano on Montserrat erupted, ultimately burying the capital in ash, forcing its abandonment, dashing her hope to revisit her birthplace. In 2004, she and other British artists lost works in an art-storage fire in London; her Camden Arts Center pieces perished. “For a long period the work was making sense of how one inherits trauma,” she said. “What you inherit and what’s your own — sometimes it’s not distinguishable.”
[Top photo by Elias Williams for The New York Times: Veronica Ryan at Paula Cooper Gallery in Chelsea, where her current exhibition is titled “Along a Spectrum.” Second photo: “Custard Apple (Annonaceae), Breadfruit (Moraceae), and Soursop (Annonaceae),” 2021. Ryan’s homage to the Windrush generation, immigrants to Britain from the Caribbean between 1948 and the early 1970s, consists of tropical fruit sculptures. They evoke childhood memories of Caribbean families making a home in England. Credit: Veronica Ryan, Paula Cooper Gallery and Alison Jacques; Andy Keate.]