Born Detroit, 1974 / BFA, Wayne State University; MFA, University of Iowa / Lives in Detroit
The artwork of Ryan Standfest is a wild collection of materials, media, and processes. He produces comics, performances, etchings, sculptural objects, videos, artist books, animations, art criticism, installations, short stories, and more. Trained as a printmaker, this early commitment reveals his deep interest in a socially distributed art, art that is multiple in its nature, non-elitist in its availability. The old high/low art dichotomy is irrelevant to him—a recently reworked video, The Dirt Eater (2007, 2018), for example, has a soundtrack that moves from the kitsch of Irving Berlin to the esoteric tonalities of Krzysztof Penderecki. He ignores the easy categories of traditional practices, and his Rotland Press, curatorial activities, and writing merge seamlessly with his production of more traditionally identified visual art forms, like linocuts or installations.
But where Standfest goes wide with materials and media, he goes deep and highly selective with his content. He calls it “a concern with the fallibility of structures that aim to halt entropy.” The content of his work returns relentlessly to a consistent set of issues—progress and ruin, idealization and imperfection—where hopes and dreams collide with various failures, where optimism meets its sure fate. This fate is not pessimism, but a rough and tumble reveling in the absurd and in the flaws of things, something more Rabelaisian. For example, in one of Standfest’s short stories, “COITUS MODERN/CASE STUDY: Modernist Erotic Delirium” (2016), a character named Kessler, attracted to modern furniture, is aggressively intimate with a Mies van der Rohe Barcelona Daybed. Or likewise, in an etching, An Act of Vandalism (2017), Le Corbusier’s ideal Modulor man is afflicted with syphilitic sores and has the scars of Corbu’s own serious encounter with a boat propeller. In Standfest’s work, modernist narratives, such as utopian progress or human perfectibility, are exposed as folly, as persistent dreams that are merely absurd struggles against entropy.
Ryan Standfest is an allegorist, a verbal and visual storyteller whose artwork makes its cultural argument not through abstract, highflying polemics but through deeply personal connections, where the sadness of post-industrial ruin can also be a deep hole in the backyard grass of his childhood home (The Dirt Eater). Standfest appropriates one story to make another, doubling back to critique the first through its placement in the present. He gives us the story of Le Corbusier’s Modulor man and tells our current story of loss in its crumbled idealism. He gives us the story of mid-century modern furniture design and combines it with the story of our contemporary fetishization of it. This doubling of meaning gives us the rich ironies that riddle his work.
Allegory operates by filling the gap between past and present, and its process of representing the past automatically brings the complications of nostalgia, a problematic longing for an imagined, constructed past. In The Dirt Eater, the Irving Berlin song, “I Want to Go Back to Michigan,” immediately signals that the video is partly about nostalgia. Nostalgia, which is also engaged in a struggle with entropy, is a corrupt or, at least, very suspect affect that Standfest actively subverts. His recent series of paintings on corrugated cardboard use the forgotten languages of old drugstore displays and back page tabloid advertising, with all their art deco graphic glitz, to trumpet socio-economic failure. Strongly ironic language subverts any nostalgic impulses on the part of the viewer. These paintings are anxiously funny and disturbing, they both hype and deflate, but they certainly don’t reinforce memories of a golden past. (Modern Dream House, 2018; Captain of Industry, 2018; Death Auto, 2018)
Another way Standfest subverts nostalgia is through undermining longing with disgust. One of the most difficult characteristics of his art is its confrontational use of disturbing images—vomit, dead dogs, deformities, sores. These are calibrated counters to his otherwise nostalgic images and sources. But abjection also contributes to a central purpose in his work—social critique. The abject is a powerful means of taking on issues of marginalization and power through metaphors of repulsion and exclusion.
Recently Standfest created a work referencing Brazil’s forgotten, vacated city of Fordlandia, Henry Ford’s failed model town of the 1920s. The piece takes the form of an abjectly decayed and spattered promotional sign in Portuguese that simply says, Welcome to Fordlandia (2018). Obviously, Standfest isn’t just talking about Brazil. In its straightforward simplicity, this image hits hard, suggesting a complicated story of both victimization and predation, and like so much of Standfest’s work, it doubles back.
Timothy van Laar, September 2018
Copyright Essay’d 2018