According to Camus, in The Myth of Sisyphus, the main philosophical problem is suicide and all other quandaries are superfluous details that need only to be answered once the major issue is addressed. Camus did not believe that suicide was the answer, his solution was much cleaner and less final; rather than give up pushing that boulder up that same hill every day, keep going and pretend to enjoy it. “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” There is a parallel between what Camus was preaching and the teachings of the Buddha, which is that the experience of life itself is worth the struggle, but that’s where their similarities end. Camus has a Western positivistic slant, in his attempts to sugar coat and ascribe happiness to what we strongly suspect is devoid of those qualities to begin with, whereas Buddhism does not attempt to delude our perceptions, it is instead concerned with true acceptance; being alive is worthwhile even if we are not always happy.
Although existentialism has been out of fashion for decades, the human condition has not changed much. Mary Midgley once likened philosophy to plumbing, something no one notices until something goes terribly wrong. Currently, there is an overwhelming tendency to dismiss larger questions of meaning and purpose in our lives as a decadent frivolity, nothing to be paid much attention to or taken seriously, since these are not “real” problems. This attitude seems to stem largely from fear, since people are often afraid of questioning things that make them uncomfortable, preferring to dismiss and ignore larger philosophical concerns rather than confront that which they fear the most; themselves.
In Anyone and No One, Will Ryman has accomplished creating installations that are both visually and cerebrally stunning, now on view at both Paul Kasmin locations. Upon entering the 10th Ave gallery, visitors are confronted by a 90-foot figure that has collapsed onto the floor. His vivid cobalt blue shirt is comprised 250 pairs of shoes, his arms, hands, and feet are made of 30,000 gleaming, silver bottle caps, and he is wearing a pair of colossal Levi’s jeans. The figure’s expressionistically modeled face wears an inscrutable countenance, which can be interpreted as being exhaustion or resigned pain or perhaps neither. At first, this dazzling display of materiality belies the bleakness of the figure’s situation. The press release states that the “figure’s presence is intentionally ambiguous” and that we cannot tell whether he is sleeping or dying. Still, there is pathos to the figure’s posture and his undetermined facial expression. A doorway in the forehead, leads into a labyrinth filled with of 200,000 brushes. Passing through this threshold, the viewer becomes transported into what appears to be the mind of an artist, where each brush becomes a tragic-comical neuron, a place where each thought, memory, and feeling pertains to the cultured life of the artist’s mind. Was art at the root of what that caused this being to collapse or did he collapse despite being an artist?
At the 27th Street space, the viewer is presented with a towering raven, comprised of hundreds of preposterously colossal, fabricated nails holding one of Ryman’s signature roses in its beak. Using this anachronistic symbol of a romanticized past, Ryman seems to be commenting on the idea of belief and our contemporary detachment from the past’s more direct and idealized expression of emotion. At a smaller scale, this bird would be a bibelot found at a yard sale, probably made by someone’s crafty retired grandfather, but by bringing a monumental scale into play, and by placing his sculpture in the context of the gallery, Ryman creates a dialogue that’s simultaneously opaque and complex, despite employing an easily identifiable cultural symbol. Even when considering the source of the symbol, which is Edgar Allen Poe’s well known poem, The Raven, it’s difficult not to consider how much cultural values shift over time; even if the human condition never changes, our collective perception of ourselves changes. It would be difficult to imagine a poet today sincerely employing the same Gothic style and macabre approach as Poe does and not using it as a self-conscious style from the past à la John Barth. Yet however tenuous the link is between the past and the present it isn’t merely a matter of separating the two from the timeless and the timely, because no such neat division exists, and despite the inevitable loss of meaning and understanding that is lost in our interpretation all art over time, there still exist immutable aspects of the past that we can still relate to in the present.