Ryan Callanan’s first ever solo show opened to the public in London on the 1st of November. He very generously gave artrepublic back stage access to the installation snf invites to the Storm Trooper packed launch party.
Ryan Callanan has been working under his alia ‘RYCA’ for several years building a huge collector base. The artist from the East End of London made his name in the graffiti and street art scene with limited edition prints brimming with pop culture references, iconic movie moments, and his infectious sense of humour.
His solo show ‘The Highs and Lows’ brought together for the first time his classic RYCA work, the popular ‘Reservoir Troopers’ and ‘Star Wars’ inspired prints, with his diverse new ‘Ryan Callanan’ creations. Drawing on his vast knowledge of materials, Ryan has been experimenting with industrial processes, video installation, and furniture design, pushing the boundaries of his art to create some incredible contemporary work.
Meeting Ryan he was clear about the distinction between his RYCA work and his Ryan Callanan work, describing the show as “a bit of a split personality”, but far from being disjointed the show was an impressive invitation into the breadth, and depth of Ryan’s vision. Bridging his two ‘personalities’ and binding them together is Ryan and his approach. The show, split across two floors was enjoyably witty, his aesthetic was clean and bold throughout and his approach was refreshingly democratic.
Ryan is a self confessed Star Wars geek and a genuine toy collecting enthusiast. His first ever video installation piece, created especially for the show, was a wall of videos built into a giant ‘H’, the initial of Star Wars character Han Solo. The 7 screens featured video clips of Harrison Ford as Han Solo in cleverly edited shooting scenes which interplayed with each other creating an overwhelming wall of retro seventies explosions.
The video wall was installed just outside Ryan’s handmade Storm Trooper temple. A small, darkly lit room with silver walls, candles and a smoke machine was built especially for the show. Inside the enticing room was Ryan’s meticulously constructed shrine to Star Wars Storm Troopers; glow-in-the-dark screen prints, a wall of Storm Trooper crucifixions, and rows and rows of Storm Trooper figurines each hand painted. The eccentric construction epitomized Ryan’s approach; highly amusing, atmospherically nostalgic, masterfully constructed, and surprisingly philosophical.
When asked why he had built a shrine to Star Wars, a temple to the Troopers, Ryan replied “Star Wars only started wars on TV”. Not only did it showcase his incredible eye for detail, interest in materials, passion for toy collecting and his whole hearted enthusiasm for the golden age of cinema and old school cool (1977) the installation was quite clearly a thought provoking piece about religion, worship and childhood. The Strom Trooper helmet money box in the middle of the temple, seemed to reference a religious collection box, amusingly raising challenging questions about the modern day church.
The genius of Ryan’s work is that it is generously welcome to all and as a result it is fascinatingly multifaceted; his painstakingly constructed Storm Trooper crucifixes and expertly printed Han Solos are not only gently humorous, nostalgic slices of retro cool, they provide an opportunity to laugh at ourselves, our religion, our history, and our politics.
The collection of work on show created under the ‘Ryan Callanan’ name also demonstrated Ryan’s great skill with materials, his perfectionism, and his ability to subtly reference and record popular culture. In an incredibly exciting way, these works seem to have created an entirely new genre of art. Working in bas-relief, in a material, technique and style usually associated with traditional pub signs, Ryan has reinvented sign writing, elevating it to a contemporary art form. He has worked as a professional 3D sign writer and transferred the skill into his own art, making stunning 3D glass and resin works as well as limited edition moulded text pieces.
It was fascinating talking to him about these incredibly inventive works. It seems as though he’d become frustrated by the street art scene, and especially “the drips”, “everyone’s doing messy” he said. Whereas sign writing is a highly technical skill which is clean and disciplined, and allows him to further develop his aesthetic whilst pushing boundaries and rejuvenating a dying art.
The fantastic Ryan Callanan works include a series of signs which are ‘expletive-insertions’ (a process by which an expletive or profanity is inserted into a word). Again, they are brilliantly witty and cleverly tap into the collective British psyche in which the pub sign has become an unconsciously absorbed reference point against which Ryan’s words and symbols react. The pieces are very impressive, combining numerous techniques with glass, gilding, resin and lettering. A beautiful example of one of these ‘signs’ is the work Ryan created for photographer JR.
Another highlight of the show were Ryan’s traditional pub signs of quotes of poignant song lyrics from 90s hip hop and rap. He described them as “hip hop in Wild West format”. Not only did they showcase Ryan’s distinctive 3D sign writing technique, but also his aesthetic of cross reference; taking an item out of its context and splicing it with another to create something that feels familiar but whose meaning is subtly shifted. Again the depth of the work was impressive; for example ‘Cash Rules Everything Around Me’ was a piece created in the traditional pub sign palette “to keep it true to its roots”, which referenced C.R.E.A.M. a song by the New York hip hop group Wu-Tang Clan, from 1993, whilst remaining cleverly contemporary and topical in today’s economic climate.
Ryan’s first solo show is full of highs. It showcases the work of an incredibly skilled artist who has a genuinely impressive knowledge of the materials and processes he uses. His art is brimming with his infectious enthusiasm, playful humour and refreshing generosity. He offers art that can be enjoyed and accessed by everyone, from Star Wars geeks and film buffs, to art historians and political theorists. Ryan, with his Storm Trooper temple, has discovered the holy trinity of fine art; creating works which are materially, visually and conceptually interesting.