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Friday, April 12, 2024

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ArtArt ReviewRyan Whelan plays beat the clock in 'The River...

Ryan Whelan plays beat the clock in ‘The River Can Run’

At Pt.2 Gallery, the Oakland-based artist confronts our (and art's) precarious relationship with time.

Find yourself with a couple of hours to spare? Visit “The River Can Run,” a new solo exhibition from painter and fabricator Ryan Whelan, now on display at buzzy downtown Oakland gallery Pt.2 (through April 6). The show is obsessed with time, painstakingly aware of the ticking clock. You’ll be sure to make your next appointment. 

Whelan has been a fixture in the Bay Area arts scene for the last decade, mounting shows almost yearly since he graduated with a degree in printmaking from San Francisco State University in 2015. His restlessness is the raw material of the latest exhibition, evident in a style of agitated, impasto brush strokes that lend just about every work a thrumming sense of motion. Take “Conquer Time,” for example: a black-green checkerboard where thick smears of paint zig, swoop, and run over one another in frenzied tangles. Bound in their respective squares, the streaks of color seem to churn. 

Ryan Whelan, ‘Fuzzy logic,’ 2024. Mixed media on paper. Courtesy Pt.2 Gallery

The show presents 29 paintings and drawings, most of them abstract or verging on the figurative, plus six battery-powered mechanical installations—a new direction for Whelan, who has historically kept his fabrication to commercial jobs. He sticks to a familiar palette of muted acrylics throughout the painted works: soft blues and bleached yellows that feel at odds with, or perhaps considerate of, the show’s prevailing unease.

As in some of his most outstanding earlier paintings—the rich yellow stripes in “Energy always transfers,” or the sublime cerulean lightburst in “Things thought below can move high above you”—Whelan’s use of cool tones provides dramatic contrast for a few moments of vibrant color. This happens most ecstatically in “Fuzzy logic,” where a collage of oblong golden stars practically glimmers against a flat coffee-cream backdrop.

The river, of course, is central. All of the pieces play on the motif conceptually or visually. Walking into the gallery, viewers encounter a 10-foot-tall rectangular painting plastered in run-on capitalized text called “Screaming Object.” The metaphor is a little cute (stream/scream-of-consciousness—get it?), but the prose approaches the lyrical: “IT’S WIND THAT PAINTS THE BIRDS ACROSS THE SKY” reads one particularly memorable line. The exhibition’s titular painting, “The river can run,” depicts a photo-negative river slicing clean across a wood panel, edge to edge. Time, our river, will not be interrupted. 

Ryan Whelan, ‘Conquer time,’ 2024. Mixed media on paper. Courtesy Pt.2 Gallery

Or maybe it’s his river. Whelan has routinely turned to nature to make sense of himself. He once told a reporter that he sees no distinction between humanity and nature, explaining that “in this kind of thinking, a painting of a tree is also just a portrait.” So, too, with the river. The approach saves the show from devolving into a collection of visual greeting card analogies about man’s relationship to time, conjuring instead a portrait of the artist’s attempts to reckon with anxiety about his own temporal existence. 

The back room of Part 2’s railroad-style gallery space contains Whelan’s mechanical installations. There are five steel disks on the left and right walls titled “Defense Against Fervor,” each with a spiral welded onto its face. They spin constantly. At the center of the room, a life-sized paper clay head—hairless, earless, wearing a sad expression—teeters along a narrow steel track in circles, an aluminum bucket full of stones and wet sand dangling from the base of its neck. The piece is called “Along with time,” and the face bears some resemblance to Whelan’s own (a coincidence, he told me, but a fitting one).

Ryan Whelan, ‘Along with time,’ 2024. Steel, paper clay, and Arduino. Courtesy Pt.2 Gallery

Looming over these bizarro circus-contraptions is the show’s largest and most impressive piece, “Water shapes the stones”—a six and a half by eight foot mosaic of icy blues and slate grays. Thick, textured strokes of white painted over the top give it a silvery shimmer that seems to glint as you move. 

The painting, which calls to mind cold water washing over smooth stones, is a salve against the grunt and whir of the head’s arduino motor. That Whelan finds symmetry between the two pieces, each carrying stone and sand to nowhere in particular, suggests a certain relief.  

When I visited the exhibition, Whelan was just arriving with power tools to finish welding additional supports for the robotic head. He was worried, he said, that over time the steel track would turn brittle from incessant bending, and then break. I didn’t see the original, but the repaired version was still precarious, wobbling in unstable parabolas between supports. While I was there, it held. See it while it lasts.

RYAN WHELAN: THE RIVER CAN RUN through April 6 at Pt.2 Gallery, Oakland. More info here.

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