Before Ryan McLennan ever puts acrylic paint to paper, he spends hours reading and contemplating the meaning of his highly detailed yet stylized artworks of North American mammals and birds on sparse, white backgrounds. “Iʼm thinking more than Iʼm doing the work,” McLennan says. “If Iʼm in the studio for eight hours, how many hours am I painting? Really only about four.” He may read two or more books to reach one idea—a simple narrative that is represented on the paper. Yet for the artist, it is not important whether the viewer understands or even realizes the story he is telling, because, as he says: “I always find the viewers have their own idea.”
The themes and ideas that create the environment for McLennanʼs art are rooted in natural history. The animals in his work are living and interacting, but are influenced by our human interactions, fears, and religious beliefs. “They exist in a bleak, desolate, and depressing place,” he says. “They know they have no lives. But they have a very basic instinct for any living thing—survival. Animals know that they need to live, but these animals in this environment they question their existence. They might have the option not to live.”
For example: an image like “Mercy,” a large painting of an elk suffocating her children in a grove of dead or lifeless deciduous trees, cracking under the weight of heavy rocks that they could not uphold in the natural world. It was inspired by a 1903 novel called “The Murderess,” by Alexandros Papadiamantis. The harsh and difficult life of women and girls during a time of poverty and desperation make it easy for the protagonist to convince herself that the act she is driven to is better for all concerned. In “Mercy,” McLennan attempts to convey that struggle. For the elk, it is too hard, and life holds no promise for her children.
It would be easy to dismiss McLennanʼs paintings as dystopian and nihilistic. Desolate? Yes. But McLennan somehow manages to convey that our human attention to trying to know the unknowable is absurd and fruitless. Simplicity is expressed through the simple pallet of browns and natural tones of the paintings, and the subdued, even-keeled nature of the artist himself. In “Mercy,” blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata) fly around the scene, a slightly hopeful symbol, yet assertive against what appears to be a threat to them. A vocal and aggressive bird, one can
almost hear their cries from the painting. In McLennanʼs world, he claims the animals and birds “are in total control of their future. They are responsible for managing and maintaining their resources without exhausting them.” Perhaps this view is too utopian. Of course, in our society where congresswomen and nine-year-old girls are shot doing what they love, and the political rhetoric has spiraled to a new level of discord, and thousands remain unemployed, we long for something we can control, a society in which floods do not ravage Australia and winter blizzards donʼt bury New York City almost weekly, and Haitians can recover from earthquakes and cholera outbreaks. But this kind of control is not possible. All we can do is what the animals do in McLennanʼs paintings–survive.
Our population growth and westward expansion resulted in the extinction of many species native to North America. Yet, some species continue to thrive. Life goes on for elk and deer, moose and buffalo. These animals are recreated in McLennanʼs paintings, in a world that
only he can document. A world of lifeless trees, gnarly, twisted sculptures, their branches like antlers, in a stark, white ethereal plane—a parallel universe. McLennan knows what this world looks like before he puts graphite to gessoed paper. He doesnʼt sketch in a sketchbook; he
ponders and thinks about the image until heʼs ready to put it down. He plans the composition and begins with graphite pencil, then goes back and paints. The gesso makes it possible to erase light marks, but not significant sections. It has to be right. It has to be balanced.
With his art roots deeply embedded in New England-style naturalism, Audubon drawings, and museum dioramas, McLennan has a more contemporary connection with artists like Walton Ford. But whereas Fordʼs political commentary is directly written in his paintings, challenging our notions of colonialism, industrialism, and manʼs effect on the environment, McLennan is more literary and subjective in his approach. “I know on the larger ones overall what itʼs going to look like, itʼs not rare to add something else to it. I just think about it until Iʼm ready to do it,” McLennan said. This is unlike the German painters whose work he admires: Neo Rauch, David Schnell and Matthias Weischer. “I really appreciate painting like that, which is not what I do. Itʼs very painterly. Everything I do is so planned out. I always want to make this huge, sloppy brush stroke, so I envy that.”
McLennanʼs graphite and acrylic artworks are at once primal and fundamental while also being deeply contemplative, yet simple. In many ways they are as natural as breathing and in that way similar to the way Neo Rauch talks about his process of painting as “an extraordinarily natural form of discovering the world. … Outwardly it is almost entirely without intention. It is predominantly limited to the process of concentrated flow.” What appears to be without intention is deeply intended. In McLennanʼs art, through the world of animals, we learn more about the existential meaning of human life.