Ryan Mclennan

Ryan Mclennan

Apr 01/2012
by Glen Leavitt

Like most North Americans – in cities, suburbs, and small towns alike – I am constantly surrounded by images of wildlife. It is usually wildlife native to North America, and often wildlife I could at least theoretically see in person by taking an hour’s drive from wherever I happen to be.  In doctors’ offices and high schools, in living rooms and libraries, paintings of soaring eagles and predatory wolves emerging from misty woods are impossible to avoid. Bird watching field guides and Robert Bateman coffee table books are familiar to us all. The fact that we spend more time looking at pictures of wildlife than observing the real thing may be a contradiction worth considering, but there is no denying that North Americans are deeply immersed in the traditions of naturalist painting, even if our education comes primarily from spending hours in doctors’ offices staring glumly at paintings of moose.

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Ryan McLennan’s paintings poke fun at the convention in nature painting of arranging very realistically drawn animals in implausible and contrived scenarios – the eagle and the wolf that just happen to find themselves circling the same stump at the same time. McLennan’s paintings push this tendency to its limit, depicting scenes of animals which are individually realistic, but presented in bizarre and disturbing scenes.

I appreciate [nature painting] and enjoy the occasional look, but that’s about it. I’d rather see the actual animal or even a photograph

 

Despite these similarities, McLennan does not have much interest in conventional nature painting and does not consider himself a part of that tradition, preferring to draw inspiration more directly from his sources. “I appreciate [nature painting] and enjoy the occasional look, but that’s about it. I’d rather see the actual animal or even a photograph.”

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Ryan McLennan is an award-winning painter whose work has previously been featured in Juxtapoz magazine and New American Paintings. He was born in Norfolk, Virginia, growing up in what he terms a country town. “Just looking out into the front yard you could see deer, ospreys, eagles, and so on.” Sticking close to home, he attended Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, where he majored in painting and printmaking. I asked McLennan if animals have always been central to his work and he claimed they have not. “They became central about six years ago,” which would have been not long after McLennan graduated.

McLennan’s paintings generally consist of a single animal or a congregation of animals, set against an austere white background, gathered around a desolate centrepiece – a stone, a denuded tree branch, or the bleached white bones of some other dead animal. Bones also feature as jewelry, headdresses, and prosthetic limbs which the animals wear with darkly comic naïveté. Backgrounds are always blank. “I’d rather there be no connection to a specific place. These scenes are only happening in the painting; the background does not matter to me.” Taking the animals out of any conceivable habitat removes all doubt about the possibility of interpreting McLennan’s work as straightforward nature painting. McLennan’s paintings depict a world that only exists in McLennan’s paintings.

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Here is one of the central tensions in McLennan’s work: the animals he depicts are common North American mammals and birds which most of us have at some point seen in person. They are typically rendered with striking clarity and realism, and yet the situations in which they find themselves are utterly removed from zoological reality, owing more to Salvador Dali’s grotesque tableaux than James Audubon’s cool classifications. “All animals I paint are from North America. They are what I know and what I have seen throughout my life. I have a fairly good understanding of their patterns and habits.” And yet the behaviour McLennan’s animals exhibit seems ritualistic or even choreographed. It evokes museum diorama displays more than natural scenes. I raised this connection with McLennan. He replied, “I like that now that you mention it…dioramas and taxidermy are far more interesting to me than naturalist painting.”

cardinals2 and tree sharp

Death stalks McLennan’s paintings. On almost every canvas there is some evocation of death. It is in the trees, which are always bare; the bones, which litter the ground and hang from the trees; and the missing limbs and broken antlers of the animals. It is always in contrast with the sweetness and haplessness of the animals themselves, who seem to be fumbling, unknowing, through life. They coexist with death in ways which are often morbidly amusing, like the way they use the bones of their dead as decorations, or as prosthetic limbs.

There is a recurring character in McLennan’s animal paintings which is unlike the rest. It appears to be the carcass of a stuffed bear, woven from flowers, grass, and string. It is made up of the only living plant life we ever see in McLennan’s paintings, and it is in a constant state of decay and dismemberment. It is pulled apart, prodded, and fought over by the other animals. It is often strung up among the branches of the barren trees in ways that are pathetic and disturbing. “It was a symbol of what was not in the paintings, living vegetation and higher predators. It was something that sheltered and fed the animals, and a limited resource.”

Mercy

While sympathetic to ecological concerns, McLennan felt that the environmental message in his work was becoming too heavy handed. “I stopped painting (the bear) over a year ago. It gave too strong of an environmental message. Not that I’m not interested in that, I just don’t want to make art about that so bluntly. I am more interested in life/death, religion, struggle, and things like this.”

I asked McLennan if he will ever paint human subjects. In a way McLennan’s work has always been about human subjects, allegorized as animals. “I don’t know what to do with humans at the moment. Everything about my paintings is so human that actually painting humans with these interactions would be boring. But you know, I don’t think it will be good for me to strictly paint animals forever.” I asked him if he thinks his future non-animal-related projects will have the same sensibility as his current paintings, with the same combination of humour and morbidity. “I don’t find myself to be that funny or very dark either. Anything can happen with the painting, but I feel the sensibility would remain somewhat in the same realm.”

 

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