Ryan Schneider never planned to relocate to the desert. But the formerly New York-based painter is now living in Joshua Tree (and working out of a converted barn that is pretty much in the middle of nowhere). The “dreamlike quality” of his new environs is partially responsible for the vibrant new canvases in “Mojave Pictures,” a solo show on view at New York’s Taymour Grahne Gallery through December 21. I spoke with Schneider about his intense flora and fauna, and the quest to find where “out there” is.
Nature and the natural world has always played an important part in your work -- long before you moved out West. But how have your own feelings about the natural world changed in the context of living and working in Joshua Tree?
My feelings about everything have changed significantly since moving out here and working in the desert. My connection to the natural world was always strong, but now it's reality rather than fantasy. I feel as though I live in its flow and it weaves its way into my work very effortlessly. In New York, I was usually looking online for references and ideas, and out here I just look out the barn doors of my studio or go on a walk. It never feels forced. There's a dreamlike quality to my days here that is hard to describe; it has to do with connecting to the differences and changes in light and space as the day progresses. The landscape here opens me up.
My last couple of years in New York, my mind was always yearning to be "out there" -- though I wasn't quite sure where "there" was. It felt like it had been so long since I'd been lost. Though the idea of leaving the city seemed crazy and counterintuitive, once I arrived in Joshua Tree, I instantly felt I was exactly where I belonged. I was becoming more of an open channel and the things that began to appear in my work were foreign to me. I liked that. I could really focus on what was in front of me, there was less noise and chatter. Our time here (me and my wife, Dana Balicki) was supposed to be short, but after we admitted to each other how much we loved our surreal new life -- the connection to nature and the utter silence -- we decided to stay.
Can you describe your studio set-up out there? Is there a community of artists that you feel a part of, or is it more of a lone wolf scenario for you?
My studio is a large barn-type structure about 20 paces from my house. Our house faces east over a huge expanse of desert called the Hondo Wash. So generally I wake up, watch the sunrise, drink coffee with my cats -- and then walk over to the studio while still kind of asleep. It's an amazing luxury to be able to do that, start my day by looking and painting with half-asleep eyes. It gives me a chance to surprise myself. The studio has large barn doors that open up to the east as well. So the studio is just open, except when it's freezing cold in December and January. Without a commute and with everything I need right here, my whole focus is on the paintings in front of me. I made all of the work for this particular show at Taymour Grahne in the summer, May through early October. It was hot. So fucking hot. So my day was structured around avoiding the heat, basically painting very early in the morning and after the sun had set. The middle of the day was for napping and going to the gym or a pool. Anything to stay cool. After sunset, there's a relief that permeates everything, it cools down, the sky turns pink and orange, there's some peace. I did a lot of painting during that magic hour, and I think it reflects in the work. The insulated expansiveness of night. The energy of transition from day into night, the animals waking and stirring, feeling like you could breathe again.
At times, yeah, I feel like a lone wolf out here. But we have certainly found a great community, and that’s part of why we stayed. Great people who have lived in New York or LA but choose to be here now. There are a lot of artists in this area and it seems like more are coming. Andrea Zittel and Alma Allen have both been here for a long time, though I still haven't met them. Andrea Zittel has a whole compound/studio/ residency/ workshop/community called A-Z West that is a work of art in and of itself. My good friend Brian Scott Campbell just moved here; his work is amazing. Lily Stockman is basically my neighbor. She and her husband have amazing bonfire dinner parties. She's an incredible artist and human. There are many others. Great people are always coming through town and stopping by the studio. We are actually much more social here, which is bizarre. There's a restaurant down the road called La Copine. We go there for breakfast and see "everybody.” It feels a lot like the Lower East Side did in 2002- like the Pink Pony or something. Everyone knows each other and breakfast can actually get quite raucous. Also, Los Angeles is only two hours away. So obviously there's a huge art community there, and many friends of mine. I work with Richard Heller Gallery in Santa Monica, so I'll go over there and hang out with them. They just opened a new space in Chinatown as well. Sometimes, I go into the city just for the coffee and of course to see shows.
The newest paintings have a real sense of...and I am hesitant to use this term...magical realism about them. They are figurative depictions of things that actually exist, for the most part, but in a heightened way. I imagine you have also been confronted with other equally loaded terms -- like psychedelic, for instance. How do you feel about these terms? And in general, how are you working to translate things-actually-observed-in-your-surroundings into these paintings?
I'm not afraid of the terms magical realism or psychedelic. The imagery in my paintings comes from the natural world, the one that we inhabit. But they end up looking like something "beyond the veil," on the other side. I can say that to my eyes the world often looks like this, or at least feels like it. I only had a few psychedelic experiences before I came here, but I can say that now, I have them all the time, and I have them completely sober. I don't need to take anything to experience magic in my surroundings -- it just is, if you're really looking. If I'm painting a cactus or a figure, am I painting it as it's filtered through me, or am I painting what I personally see? I've come think it's probably the latter. What does the viewer see? Something entirely different. I want the viewer to step into the work and move around, hear the desert night, smell the creosote, stay a while. I want them to see something new every time they look. Because that's how it is for me, that's my experience of my own painting. If I can give that experience to another human, even a little, then I'm doing my job.
Do you have any personal favorites in terms of other artists, living or dead, whose work has been intrinsically tied up in notions of the American desert?
Marsden Hartley, Georgia O'Keefe, Agnes Martin, Michael Heizer. I feel a strong connection to these artists, and a special affinity to O'Keefe and Hartley. There is an energy of the West that they capture: the light and darkness of it, the hugeness, the connection to the other side. I feel that when I look at their work, they stop time a little, they straddle between the realms. I also strive for that while I work. For O'Keefe and Hartley, and I feel, for myself, the focus is always on painting. The act of painting is what makes the "thing" happen, if you allow it. Being in an open landscape like this can help make that happen, but painting is the vehicle. I cannot think my way into good painting, but I can sometimes paint my way into good thinking: which is basically non-thought. Allowing.
Who are the women we see portrayed in these new paintings?
These women started to appear when I began this body of work. I like to think of them as Sirens of the desert, in a way. Shapeshifters. They blend in with the cactuses, trees, and juniper bushes. They become the owls and the owls become them. They are beings you might encounter out here if you were lost at night; they might beckon you further into the desert and get you more lost, or they might help you find your way. To me, the blue figure in the painting "Ancient Woman Spring" is like the mother of the world in a creation myth. She lounges around in the desert and births the hawks, snakes, cactus, and rocks. She seems very comfortable with that job. The road I live off of is called Old Woman Springs, but to me, this blue woman feels more ancient, more like something that's been in the ether since the beginning. In this area, everything around is ancient. There's something nearby called "King Clone": a huge ring of creosote bushes, one of the oldest living things on Earth. I feel like some of this ancientness is embedded in this work.
When you have discussed or written about this new exhibition you say that you were aiming to depict a feeling of great openness. At the same time, many of these compositions have a sense of density, of things encroaching, tangling, covering up the sky -- of bodies (animal or human) being covered or overwoven by branches, leaves, or cactus limbs. How do you balance these two opposing forces -- an openness, on one hand, and this sort of density?
It's true: I want to somehow depict the openness I feel out here, but these paintings are very dense. Everything is intertwining, overlapping, touching, growing into itself. But there are pockets of deep space and openness. A friend called them "portals.” The landscape out here is huge and expansive, it can be overwhelming. But there is so much life here -- flora, fauna, cactus, bushes, trees, rock formations, rabbits, birds, lizards, snakes -- everything in this big tangle, dotted around the bigger landscape. So in the paintings I guess I'm looking for balance. There's an overall composition happening, but also a horizon line, space, sky.
Can you talk a bit about the color palette that these new works share?
The goal is to create a painting that glows. Color is all important to me, but my use of it remains very instinctual. I'm not versed in color theory, I just feel my way through it, and more often than not, I'm feeling like grabbing yellows and bright greens and blues, hot pink, violet, and deep ivory black. I try to get a little orange in each painting as well if I can, since orange is a neglected color, but highly effective. In the end, none of it should really work, but somehow it does, at least for me.
There is a light out here in the desert that is kind of indescribable. You have to be in it. Just after the sun dips below the horizon, everything glows in this violet and subtle pink way. It looks as if the cactuses and Joshua trees have been absorbing light all day, and are now turned on like night lights. That's what I was going for in this body of work: light emanating from the subjects of the painting, rather than light coming from an outside source.
Do you ever see yourself returning to the East Coast (or to a city, at all), or do you think you have found a permanent home in the desert?
Well, we just bought a little house/studio/compound here, so I definitely see myself staying for a while. I do miss New York and visit often, but I don't see myself going back there to live anytime soon. I admire it from afar. I am happy here and my work is happy here, so this is where I'll be for a while. There is a very intentional element to life in the high desert that suits me. There's a wildness to it, it's not always easy, and you have to love it to be here. I guess that's the thing that's always drawn people to deserts, a chance to give yourself some freedom and make it up as you go along. To live within the elements, feel some space around your head, get lost if you want to.