A hundred different things could have happened to explain the aftermath pictured in After the Treehouse Fell (2020). As the title suggests, it may have been the branch that broke, causing everything in the treehouse to crash to the ground with it. Yet, as with most of Ryan Pierce’s paintings, the more I examine the evidence before me, the less certain I feel about what is going on.
The squash makes sense tumbling out of a picnic basket, but not the bear trap beside it. The pizza dough, half-curled around a rolling pin, makes less sense the more you stare at it, hovering there. And then there is the sickle, reminiscent of the Soviet Union; the shattered bust of a conquistador; the pink wig; the masquerade mask—none of these belong in a tree house.
This is what Pierce does: he gives us all the ingredients we need to make something without ever saying what the recipe is for. He is a master of the absurd, the symbolic, the cheeky, and the impossible. Walking through his playfully profound, otherworldly paintings recently on view in Awake Under Vines at Elizabeth Leach Gallery, I am left suspended between familiarity and unreality.
Given his allusions to empire, fascism, and some vague dystopian apocalypse, my mind wanders to Slavoj Žižek’s quip: “It’s easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.” I wonder if Pierce has decided to compromise and just end both.
Pierce described his primary aim for the project as depicting “the possibilities of our world in the advancing stages of climate change, albeit not with a scientific lens so much as a cultural one.” The motifs in his latest series, then, are meant to illuminate the tattered relationship between an insatiable humanity and a suffering natural world.
In his piece Storm-Born Waters (J.W. Powell, Forgotten) (2019), a number of familiar objects float to the surface: the decapitated head of a Grecian bust lies crownless in a shimmery, chemical puddle; an artillery shell; a runaway tire; the nose of a boat’s hull; a mangled wire fence—more artifacts from what feels like a distant and forgotten world. Yet not everything is crumbled. Vibrant varieties of cacti shiver out of the neon sand, alongside luminescent buds of branches that buzz, or perhaps radiate, fire orange against a bleak abyss.
For Pierce, industrialism, capitalism, and humanity should and will crumble. But he makes one thing immediately clear: the natural world will be perfectly fine once we exit it.
Pierce described his work to me as “Antifascist Climate Noir.” I take that to mean he isn’t preparing us for what could happen, but rather for what is happening, what has already happened. His work is saliently present, wryly journalistic, immanently prophetic.
In The Ever-Parting Curtain (2020), Pierce suspends reality just for a moment, dancing between openhandedness and dreamy obscurity to capture the chaos of modernity, mid-air. Here, we encounter everyday objects colliding, in direct contradiction, and at their most vulnerable. A devilishly green snake coils around a broken branch, impaling the severed head of a teddy bear. The splintered head of a pitch fork skewers a chocolate cake. Stranded balloons wander skyward, while potatoes tumble out of a cardboard box, earthbound. Wine gushes from a broken bottle; an abandoned bra, a shoe, a packed bag, a gardening glove, and a wig levitate; a blindfolded sun rises, albeit upside down. Nothing is alright.
The longer my eyes wander from fragment to fragment, I begin to notice ghoulish limbs—arms, legs, hands—interrupting what I first thought was an ominous, cloudy backdrop. No, these shadow actors grip kitchen knives, step in and out of shoes, fill gloves, don wigs. Suddenly, I realize there are actors behind the actions, perpetrators behind the deconstruction.
Pierce described this second instalment in his grander series, “Jubilee,” as “concerned with both the joyful possibilities and perpetual mess of a world after the collapse of capitalism.” The word “mess” echoes in my ears after viewing his work. He also told me the translucent ghosts in his series allude to “the urgent means necessary to topple the current paradigm, the costs to persons and communities of political violence, and the sort of unhinged bacchanal that accompanies movements that are up against seemingly impossible odds.”
Perhaps these nameless, faceless figures are friendly—or aware, at least, of the steps that must be taken to oust the present order. This feeling of anonymous urgency registers at an eerily preconscious level, at first glance. Hearing it stated is even more unsettling. When push comes to shove—as it already has in Awake Under Vines—I can’t help but wonder if this will be exactly how things come apart. So, a better question might be: When will we reach this point of fantastical disarray, where the surreality of dreams meets the very concrete, very urgent death of the industrial, capitalist world order? It’s hard to know, but Pierce helps us imagine it.
Ryan Pierce: Away Under Vines
Elizabeth Leach Gallery, Portland, OR
April 1–May 29, 2021