Rob Ryan at Somerset House
Last year, I visited Rob Ryan, the papercutting supremo at his studio in Bethnal Green, so when I heard he was transporting his entire workshop over to Somerset House for the duration of the Pick Me Up Contemporary Graphic Art Fair, this seemed the ideal premise to wander down the Strand and pay him a visit. It was a sunlit day that rendered everything in sharp focus, as if the city was setting out to resemble papercuts in celebration of this inspirational artist, for whom, undoubtably, a certain moment has arrived.
Leaving the sunlight, I entered the gallery where Rob will be working in his temporary studio for the next ten days like a monkey at the zoo. It is going to busy. Rob is going to get mobbed. It is going to be like feeding time at the penguin house. Visitors can see everything, peek over Rob’s shoulder as he sketches, then poke their noses in further to get an eyeful of all the cutting, printing, and other fiddly and fussy, fancy footwork that is involved in making his ingenious works. The dark subterranean space of the gallery had all the charisma of an old prison or an underground car park, but once I saw Rob’s cosy denim couch, his cutting table, his billboards, lamps and all the personal paraphernalia that is essential to his creative process, I was relieved to enter a familiar more sympathetic zone that goes by the name of Ryantown.
Even as I sat at Rob’s elbow while he drew branches on a tree in pencil, he had one eye on the photographers and cameramen prowling around, walking in slow motion. The dark space and powerful lighting made us feel as if we were enacting something, as if we were on stage or Rob Ryan was starring in the movie of his own existence. When asked to pose for the cameras, I thought Rob rose to the occasion with a bravura performance, as you can see above, assuming a bold, heroically comic stance that is worthy of Buster Keaton. Rob has no fear of clowning in the face of a media circus.
More than anything, Rob’s studio reminded me of the workroom in Bertolt Brecht’s house in East Berlin, where, on a series of different tables, the writer applied himself to a set of tasks simultaneously, plays, poems and letters. And so it is with Rob Ryan, only he has more projects underway than the British government. While Rob was drawing those branches on a tree on one side of the table, across from him a badge maker was furiously at work on the opposite side of the same table and half a dozen others of Rob’s loyal team were occupied in other tasks at different tables. On the next table, Rob showed me a larger paper cut in progress and, at another table, yet a larger one of a tree blowing in the wind. Then, he waved a fax of the template for “The Stylist” magazine for which he doing a cover, while explaining about the record label he is starting (Reacharound Records), his forthcoming tapestry designs and the plan to make his own customised Staffordshire figures.
I can barely keep up with all the work that Rob Ryan creates, his paper cuts, his prints, his ceramics and all the exquisite bits and pieces of graphic design for magazines and book jackets that keep cropping up everywhere. Yet most of all, I appreciate the silence and sense of calm that exists in Rob’s work. The intricacy is appealing, like lace or tapestry it delights the eye, and there is a childlike playfulness, almost an innocence to many of Rob’s pieces. They can be as delicate as cobwebs, and it is precisely this ephemeral quality which means they can also be read as memento mori. Every one a drama in microcosm, the emotional ambivalence of these evocations of the fleeting moment is what gives them such powerful resonance for me, melancholic and joyful at the same time. Rob has a benign eye and even the smallest works function as keepsakes to communicate his affectionate celebration of the transience and fragility of the human experience.
I could not reconcile the organised chaos of the studio and Rob’s attractive robust public persona with the intimacy of the work, until Rob explained that while he brings his ideas to the studio and works them out there, the source of his inspiration is elsewhere. His life in the world is his inspiration, not his life in the studio. Then Rob lifted up one of his beloved Staffordshire dogs, describing how he painted glasses onto it as a prototype for his customised Staffordshire figures. In doing so, he discovered that the ceramic spaniel had floppy ears corresponding to his own errant locks and that he had unwittingly created a self-portrait as a Staffordshire dog, and he roared with laughter at this daft notion.
Let me admit I am a fan. I love the wit of Rob Ryan’s vision of the world, picking up loose ends of pop and popular culture, from samplers and Staffordshire figures to pin badges and record sleeves, and weaving them all together like an extraordinarily clever bird to make a uniquely colourful nest that is unmistakably his own.