Labyrinth • New Paintings by Ryan Thayer Davis • April 1st - May 21st, 2016
"A labyrinth is, contrary to popular perception, not identical to a maze. I hate to break it to late and early-millennials, but Jim Henson’s 1986 masterpiece Labyrinth is a bit of a misnomer: protagonist Sarah wanders through a maze, full of choices, deceptions, and devices meant to confuse Jennifer Connelly as she tries to rescue baby Toby from David Bowie. A labyrinth by contrast offers only one path to the walker. They are unicursal designs that lead the ambulator from a labyrinth’s beginning to its central point, and just as surely back out again. It is impossible to get lost, and there are no decisions to make, apart from simply walking onwards. Nevertheless, the process of navigating the path—all that winding and turning—disorients your sense of space and time, physically and inwardly. So much so that when you reach the center, you lose track of both these, thus being stripped bare and finding something new.
A maze is a geometric decision-making tree, crumpled up like a wad of paper to disguise the information it contains, destroying legible text. A labyrinth can be said to disguise its information as well, but it is geometrically equivalent to a straight line. It is enfolded into elegant circular shapes made up of concentric rings, symmetrically divided into lobes or quadrants, and is marked upon the ground, offering a high degree of transparency. This is a large part of their beauty: you get to see the entire design laid out before you, even if that does not aid in your understanding of what a labyrinth means or does.
Walking a labyrinth is a simple activity that yields a surprising diversity of experiences, some familiar to travelers and others novel and unexpected. I walked one recently with a friend; my first impression was reminiscent of a road trip, in that regret began to build as we approached the center. I became aware that the only other journey was the one back out again, that arrival was “the beginning of the end,” with return being shorter and inadequate to the layers of meaning accrued in the approach. That feeling was shared by my companion, further modulated by a kind of “quantum-leaping” between the rings and quadrants of the design, an effect accentuated by walking at an offset, one of us further along than the other. The folded contours of the line forced us to spatially change in relation to one another quite frequently, since we couldn’t walk side-by-side along the narrow path. We crossed ways many times—sometimes walking alongside upon parallel rings but more often passing in opposite directions at distance—just like in life it turns out, in an ever-repeating cyclical process of meeting and parting, interchanging communion and aloneness. I began to see that in the labyrinth there is no other way than this; the same design that ensures we share the same path also guarantees sojourn.
Looking out from the center of the labyrinth reveals the design to be a kind of air gap, a firewall that insulates you from the outside world, and confers a state of introspection that reveals space and time to be elastic variables, subject to suspension, expansion, or compression. Leaving the center, you return to the world with its confusion and contradiction. Space and time normalize and flatten out.
The act of walking a labyrinth—similar to the act of viewing a painting—carries potential of extra-dimensionality. Both are spatial arrangements that are limited by their design, yet act as transporters, taking you from an inert level of experience to one animated, fluid, and unpredictable. A labyrinth is directly participatory and physically moves your body and mind in relation to what is observable, both inwardly and outwardly. A painting does (or can do) the same through its visual vari- ables. Both forms rely on a physical arrangement to do this, pointing to a surprising linkage between the physical, and the cognitive, emotional, and spiritual aspects that play a huge part in our consciousness.
The works here all begin with a unicursal pathway that shreds the visual plane, making canvas-wide dividing lines with one starting point and one ending. The fractured space is then pushed and pulled to both hide and highlight portions of this initial movement, making room to encode further information and content as the painting hand is forced to respond to the initial labyrinthine contours. (A handy parallel, it turns out, to a certain type of labyrinth inscribed on small tablets made for one to trace with a stylus, in lieu of walking.) This approach makes sure that we are not just “looking at a design,” but traveling it viscerally with the eye and mind as a compelling, active experience, even if we don’t know what that experience is, exactly. The result is that we have something that is explicit—known and describable in the sense that paintings are visual objects—and yet something implicit, an inward journey, an action compelled by transportation, that then must come to an end, all by virtue of the labyrinthine dynamics that the physical object causes the perceiver’s mind to move within, as experience, as thought.
Making a painting in the way of a labyrinth encodes a wealth of information through the limitations imposed on the maker’s journey—especially life narrative—be it emotional, physical, intellectual, etcetera. But it is enfolded, as content. And because of this, it takes a particular power to act, according to that spatial arrangement, in ways that are not predictable or predetermined as signifier or symbols or other agents of specific meaning, to be unfolded, and made explicate, by the viewer. "
Davis graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a BFA in Studio Art in 2006. He lives and works in Austin, TX.
Read a review of the show here