The first words of the wall text for Ryan Kitson’s exhibit, “Suds Ur Duds/Fermentation Elastic”—at the Schneider Museum of Art in Ashland, Oregon, through Saturday—ask the audience to take in the show before reading the didactics. The same placard has a numbered diagram of the art in the gallery along with the title and material list for each piece. This puts compliant viewers at the mercy of their eyes only. Granted, the average viewer is likely to experience the work before any reading takes place (at least that is how I go about it), so, in keeping with the spirit of the artist’s request, I will return to this matter at a later point.
It might be similarly fitting to address the one Kitson sculpture in a separate exhibit, “From Ignorance to Wisdom,” curated by Blake Shell, which is also at the museum but in a different gallery. Shell selected works by the Southern Oregon University (home to the Schneider) Art and Creative Writing faculty, and has included Kitson, as he was a visiting artist during the 2018 fall term. In that the piece, Fermentation Elastic, is included in the main title for his exhibit, one wonders whether it should be considered a stand-alone or as integral to the rest of his work. Exhibition title notwithstanding, in that this piece is seen before one can see the entrance to “Suds Ur Duds,” one might assume it’s a stand-alone. But in that Kitson is not actual faculty, there may be other machinations at work as well.
Fermentation Elastic distinguishes itself with its whimsy. Mounted on a low plinth, four kombucha bottles filled with liquid prop up a tie-dyed t-shirt like a miniature, four-cornered shelter, out of which flows an orange, sparkly mass with two equally decorative balls stuck in the hardened effluence. The piece is abundantly orange and also color-coordinated in a manner that might be true to a person who would imbibe in the drink while wearing that style of shirt. It should also be noted that in past iterations, the artist has added an additional level of process by filling the bottles with homemade kombucha, which, intentionally or not, puns the word “culture.”
Humor is also evident in Kitson’s primary exhibit, “Suds Ur Duds.” Named after a local laundromat, the show is a mish-mash of materials, sometimes splashed or globbed (especially with plaster in a series of wall-mounted work). In others, incongruous materials are tightly structured. For instance, Dress Form with Knocker Harness utilizes Rockstar energy drinks hidden away in a binocular case. However, it may be the ease of a play on words for the title that distracts from the potential of Dress Form. The punning on the binocular case as female breasts stifles a sculpture that is otherwise infused with energy and flying at a low altitude.
Language plays a direct role in this body of work, most notably in the wall pieces at the back of the gallery. According to Kitson’s artist statement, his return to his alma mater some 17 years after his graduation was very much on his mind during his residency. The art buildings on campus were built while Kitson was a student at SOU, and in response, he took impressions of bricks and plaques that commemorate funders and administrators who played a role in making the arts and the Schneider Museum of Art an important part of Southern Oregon University. For this writer, the way he chose to frame his history by using the word “armature” to describe the reason for and experience of making art during his return for the residency adds a layer to the work, for it metaphorically echoes his use of such metal structures in the sculpture discussed so far.
While I know little else about Kitson, I do know he is an outdoor enthusiast, and pieces such as the stoneware sculpture, Sunrise/Sunset (Pass Through), and the painting, Lake of the Woods (East/West), take us rather straightforwardly off of the campus and into Ashland’s surrounding hills. This theme continues in a comparatively loose construction, Limb Dampener, which features a heavy steel chain outfitted with, among other things, a No Trespassing sign. The sign has been molded into a 3D topographic map with contour lines. At the end of the chain is a plastic bag containing what looks to be a hand-crafted model of a large anatomical heart. A materially aggressive piece becomes curiously sentimental as the terrain has been made inaccessible by the chain.
Another stoneware piece, Model for Loins, replicates what might be the broken bracket for a piece of machinery. Negative space becomes artifact and the sculpture a stand-in for something lost; yet this diaristic interpretation may be inspired more from finally reading the artist’s statement, for the work itself is not necessarily so direct or confessional. Granted, the plaque relief pieces on the back wall provide enough of a clue that the exhibit is somewhat focused on SOU and Schneider, yet the strongest pieces in the exhibit do not rely on this history.
While Kitson’s inspiration may come from his experiences and surroundings, it is when he avoids literal representations, and thereby encourages the associative aspects of his art, that he provides the viewer broader interpretation, or, if you will, more free range.