Ryan Ostrowski is a New York-based artist who is currently focusing on tribalism www.ryanostrowski.com. He’s very talented, insightful and I was very impressed when one day, he contacted me out of the blue. His work balances tribal and pop cultures. What’s this all about? Read on and find out. But first …
“… Contemporary America goes to such lengths to fabricate a specific way to be, advertising is a big culprit here ... tribal insignias not only became a way for me to express unity in the chaos, but on a social level, it's really about bringing awareness to this enormous cultural mask …”
MICHAEL: Hey Ryan, Your work is very cool. I see that you call what you've done of late, "Tribal Pop." What's the inspiration for this?
RYAN: Hi Michael, thank you for looking at the work! I began painting while I was living in Seattle in 2010. Before this, I was a filmmaker. It's quite rainy in the Pacific Northwest and I think it was being indoors that led me to painting. The tribal aesthetic happened very naturally when I picked up the brush. I continued to work this way and was drawn to "tribal" for its complexity and chaos, but also the unity in these motifs. The pop component came later.
MICHAEL: But where do you think this affinity for the tribal thing came from? What does it mean to you? Were you born in Kenya or the Australian outback?
RYAN: When you grow up in a rural environment and you're gay, there's a kind of mask that you wear; the emphasis is on hiding and concealing these qualities. Converged with that and I think very incidentally and especially once you leave the rural environment like I did and inhabit an urban environment, there's a greater sense of a "tribe" in the gay community. It's always been a huddling around this commonality that we share to, in some way, come to terms with this, and this coming together is very tribal. I arrive at this aspect on a personal level, but the greater metaphor in my career has more to do with Modernist Primitivism, which describes the Western response to tribal cultures as revealed in the work and thought of modern artists.
In terms of where I stand, contemporary America goes to such lengths to fabricate a specific way to be, advertising is a big culprit here, but it's heavy in celebrity culture too. As a contemporary artist, tribal insignias not only became a way for me to express unity in the chaos, but on a social level, it's really about bringing awareness to this enormous cultural mask. I am using Primitivism as a means to describe not tribal, but my own cultural dilemma.
MICHAEL: Most tribal peoples - even today - are nothing if not authentic. However, many if not most "civilized" people put on masks of "professionalism" in effort to climb the career/economic ladder. I'm not sure which is the more “evolved” group.
RYAN: Yes! There's a certain amount of evolution required for the civilized to understand this phenomenon and work it to their advantage, and I think one could argue that in and of itself is tribal. This goes beyond our own mask, beyond the suit and tie, into the type of cars we purchase, the part of town we choose to live. It goes into our interpersonal relationships and how we treat and refer to other people. It also extends into the masks we put on others, how we project women in television, film and advertising and perhaps more dangerously, how we project men and so on. These aspects of tribal are a code of communication, which signal to others "I am this." In most cases, we are not. And I am very interested in this facade.
MICHAEL: I think you should do a series of tribal works that depict "tribal" people taking selfies. It's the ultimate in dichotomy. People who are supposed to sacrifice all for their tribes, but they're really all about exposing and sharing their individuality. Are these concepts mutually exclusive? Comedy or tragedy? Hmm.
RYAN: It's fascinating. The anthropology of tribal cultures is vast. It's tricky to make a call, some of us are selfless. Technology has had a profound influence on the lives and development of my generation. I extend the metaphor of the mask to this especially. I mean, Facebook is on one level; posting and updating obsessively with photos that are in many ways staged to imply we are doing or feeling something profound. And we may be, however then Instagram comes along and takes this a step further, with the ability to filter. The mask seems to be getting thicker. Your selfies idea is good.
MICHAEL: What is the point of creating art? Isn't it another form of a selfie? Most people walking the planet won't ever buy art. I mean, really, art is not like air, food and water.
RYAN: Yet even over 30,000 years ago, the Paleolithic cave paintings were in the works; they were expressions that are an extension of those basic needs. Life becomes so much richer when you can visualize what stream you want the water from, the animals you want to hunt and strategize how the hunt is going to happen. Art advances our capacity for understanding, and good art pushes the language forward. It is awesome if someone wants to buy a work. It is not expected.
MICHAEL: What makes your work "Pop" for you? Is it the treatment? The subject matter? The references, i.e. Warhol? The animation-like appearance?
RYAN: Often I think about this question and become perplexed. Pop and everything this movement stood for is a real mushroom cloud. I tend to paint popular subjects and perhaps because of this, I arrive at being “Pop” to everyone else, though I am half on board with this. Ultimately, when Pop was introduced, it represented a whole new way of seeing. I am not an art historian, but I feel like Lichtenstein and Warhol in the 1960's are Pop at its most authentic. It is still very much alive today and its reach is worldwide. I am a part of a generation of artists who seem to be swimming in this mixed bag of movements of the past. What makes it more complicated is we are also in the trendier midst of conceptual art, performance art, street art and so on. It's really a free-for-all isn't it? Now, the commonality I believe we share is we are indeed reinterpreting these movements in Post-Modern terms. It would be wonderful to have a panel on this.
MICHAEL: What's your first memory of art and when did you first become aware of yourself as an artist?
RYAN: While I was growing up, I was never formally acquainted with the arts on the front of museums and galleries. Having said that, I would attest to having been perhaps at my most ambitious creatively when I was about fifteen years old. There's no question I was an artist then, but I was not cognizant of it. I was very hands-on as a teenager and my first artistic passion was making short films. I would go to such lengths to produce these films, enlisting everyone I knew to cast as characters, building sets, the whole production. In retrospect, it was a totally organic and intuitive way of working. I was feeling and creating so naturally.
MICHAEL: What do you think about the art world/art market today and how they function? Dead, famous artists continue to prosper BIG while living artists are struggling and people don't know them.
RYAN: One of the reasons I decided to paint a portrait of Vincent Van Gogh was because I felt he was so incredibly betrayed by society. I wanted to depict the anxiety of a man who had it, but just couldn't quite claim it. Of course, this was a different time, but that struggle is still very much alive. Art has become a real business and this complicates things. Duchamp's philosophy on this was that if an artist was a genius but was spoiled by an ocean of money, his genius would dissolve. I do see a lot of trivial work going to market for extraordinary amounts of money. I don't know if this kind of art is even art. Some of it is. There is a devilish whisper in my ear.
MICHAEL: During your actual process of creating art, what are you thinking? Are you actually thinking? Meditating? Is the process more intellectual, emotional or spiritual?
RYAN: With painting, I tend to do most of my thinking prior. Once the subject is selected, I begin to read and absorb whatever I can about the person or thing. Often, if the subject is deceased, which has been the case recently, I find myself looking most into the last phases of their life. Once I begin, I try not to reflect too much on what I learned, reason being the individual symbols that will be embedded in the image are drawn out of me very subconsciously, and once I step back and interpret what has happened, they almost represent the subject in an odd way. The style is not about being decorative. As far as my environment - music is playing, the windows are wide open and coffee is essential.
MICHAEL: What? You don't do decorative art? Don't you want to help people find art that matches their sofas and chairs?
RYAN: It's amazing how uninterested people are regarding the philosophical side of art. They could have a painting on the wall which changed history and the sentiment may be about something very superficial.
MICHAEL: Finally Ryan, what are your hopes for your future as an artist? It's not too late for you to consider law or med school. The artist's life is so unpredictable and shaky at best. Who needs the stress?
RYAN: The future is a dazzling mystery. If I aim now, I could shoot too low. It's ambitious to attempt shifting the direction of art history, even a little rebellious, but I like what I do. A lot.
MICHAEL: Cool chat. Thanks Ryan.
RYAN: Thanks for the opportunity Michael.
Check out Ryan Ostrowski and www.ryanostrowski.com.