A more hopeful apocalypse

Ryan Pierce's lush paintings invite the eye to meander and the mind to contemplate cultural and environmental resilience

Ryan Pierce, Storm-Born Waters (J.W. Powell, Forgotten) (2019). Flashe and spray paint on canvas over panel, 47” x 60″.

Images of the apocalypse tend to follow a theme: Dark skies, derelict buildings, smoldering fire. Over the last few years, phrases like “end of the world” and “fascist uprising” have circled around in public consciousness, tense and unyielding. It’s no surprise. We’re facing down the planetary crisis of climate change, another rise of white supremacy in our communities, and a virus killing millions. This is scary. Many of us perceive a world that’s becoming near-cinematic in its bleakness.

Despite these very real threats, Ryan Pierce chooses to envision the potential for worldly change from an optimistic, anti-apocalyptic lens. What if a collective revolution could be celebratory, wild, improvisational? The exhibition at Elizabeth Leach Gallery, Awake Under Vines, is the second in a series Pierce calls Jubilee. The large-scale paintings depict the confluence of environmental chaos and the end of industrial capitalism as a sort of revelrous feast, full of mayhem and clutter and uniquely human messes. Pierce’s paintings don’t force a new narrative on the viewer, but instead offer possibility: What if the future looked like this? What if resistance also meant regeneration? Although his compositions are jumbled and layered and complex, they offer the viewer a breath, a space in which the capacity for human resilience can spark hope instead of dread.

Ryan Pierce, After the Treehouse Fell (2020). Flashe and spray paint on canvas over panel, 47” x 60″.

Pierce’s paintings, all of which are Flashe and spray paint on canvas, contain obvious connections to the natural world. Vines twist around fences and lattices; hollyhocks entangle with snakes; cacti flourish among toppled monuments to John Muir and John Wesley Powell. It’s no mistake that Pierce depicts destroyed monuments celebrating white men of environmental movements. In After the Treehouse Fell and Storm-Born Waters (J.W. Powell, Forgotten), these figures are, in Pierce’s vision of revolution, literally sinking back into the earth.

As a summer wilderness guide with Signal Fire, Pierce has traveled extensively throughout the West, and his botanical references stem from real-life experience; there’s a felt sense of love and sentimentality in the natural elements of his paintings that then snarls dynamically with weapons and tools of uprising. Masks, knives, helmets, and makeshift bombs drive home the urgency of Pierce’s envisioned revolution. The works are also profuse with distinctly “human” clutter—clothing, broken bottles, balloons, picnic baskets, blankets—suggesting our entanglement with authoritarianism. We’re the ones who have strewn detritus over Pierce’s paintings, and it’s now our task to envision a collective, cultural resilience. 

Ryan Pierce, Flash Flood (2020). Flashe and spray paint on canvas over panel, 72” x 96”.

Plants and animals, on the other hand, flourish within the chaos of these paintings. As always, we can trust them and learn from their flexibility. Ceramic vessels are sometimes depicted broken, as though the plants they housed have burst free of them. Snakes, historical symbols of fertility, rebirth, transformation, and even eternity (in ouroboros form) are also frequent figures in Pierce’s works. In Flash Flood, a snake’s curvature emulates a crawling vine. In this subtle gesture, Pierce expresses a reciprocity within the natural world that humans could learn from and emulate.

As Pierce explained in his exhibition tour, the paintings for Awake Under Vines were created in isolated, vigorous studio sessions last year. This intensity shines in the dense, layered quality of the works and their symbolic meanings. Pierce researched societies during the rise of fascism, reading memoirs from those who lived in Italy in the 1930s, for example. He also read about white power movements and specifically cites Kathleen Belew’s Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America as an influence. These inquiries inform a sense of latent violence in Pierce’s paintings—there are numerous signs of a struggle that has just passed, or that is impending—and drive home how this latency is present in our current lives. For instance, in The Waterworks, Pierce uses gardening tools to reference his research on a Proud Boy working within the Portland Parks and Recreation department. 

Ryan Pierce, The Waterworks (2020). Flashe and spray paint on canvas over panel, 42.25” x 40.25″.

The title of Pierce’s exhibition references a vision of Gulliver (of Gulliver’s Travels) awakening pinned under Lilliputian vines. This fairytale idea finds real-world translations in restricted societies, sleeper cells, and resistance movements simmering just out of sight. Pierce’s constant weaving of the natural world into his paintings is, in itself, another radical hidden reference. It’s a reminder that we are not separate from nature—as humans, we are also nature, and thus flora and fauna must be central figures in our plan for regeneration. (Depictions of gardening tools like pitchforks and rakes, which could be either weapons or cultivation tools, further this idea.) 

Pierce is disengaged with the notion of apocalypse in the traditional, melancholy sense. Instead, he looks to our capacity for community-building, organizing, and returning to Earth-centered modes of knowledge. The symbolism within Awake Under Vines suggests an optimistic, improvisational dismantlement of the capitalism and climate-change-denial that threatens our current world, but Pierce’s compositions in themselves are also joyous. His paintings are rife with tangled imagery to pore over, each like a children’s seek-and-find book. 

Feasts, floods, broken objects. Pierce says, Look at all of these things. What are we going to do with them? How can they be repurposed? What happens next? 

Awake Under Vines is on view at Elizabeth Leach Gallery and online until May 29, 2021.

About the author

Lindsay Costello is an experimental artist and writer in Portland, Oregon, with an academic background in textile research at the Oregon College of Art and Craft. Her critical writing can also be read at Hyperallergic, Art Papers, Art Practical, 60 Inch Center, this is tomorrow, and Textile: Cloth and Culture, among other places. She is the founder of plant poetics, an herbalism project, and soft surface, a digital poetry journal/residency. She is the co-founder of Critical Viewing, an aggregate of art community happenings in the Pacific NorthwestHer artistic practice centers magic, ecology, and folkways in social practice, writing, sculpture, and installation.

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