“Along a Spectrum,” Veronica Ryan’s most ambitious U.K. show to date (on view through September 5, 2021), features a new body of work created during a two-year residency at Spike Island. (The exhibition was supported by a Freelands Award, which enables organizations to showcase under-recognized mid-career female artists.) Viewers entering the light and airy gallery space encounter a beguiling array of forms, many held within sumptuously colored netting in shades of orange, yellow, and lime-green. Ryan’s use of natural elements constitutes the core of her practice, and the resulting sculptures are suffused with the culture of her native Caribbean island of Montserrat. Though these works explore the polarities of presence and absence, container and contained, and revelation and concealment, they can also be appreciated purely for their intricate handcrafting, their textures and sizzling hues.
Multiple Conversations, a highlight of the exhibition, consists of a museological display of objects residing on a shelf that extends the entire length of a wall. Because the individual elements are small, viewers must draw close to admire the extraordinarily delicate manner in which they have been stitched, bound, wrapped, stacked, and bundled. Made from fruits, seeds, tape, elastic, coral, tea bags, crocheted doilies, nets, and cocoa pods (among many other materials), the objects in this “cabinet of curiosities” are imbued with an immense human warmth, derived at least in part from their domestic scale and their tactile, handmade character.
In another area of the gallery, luminous crocheted nets are tied to the ceiling, using the same sailors’ knots once employed on ships crossing the Atlantic. In a fantastically theatrical gesture, Ryan stretched the nets taut from the ceiling down to the floor. Although these nets resemble traditional fishing nets that Ryan had seen in St Ives, Cornwall, and in Bristol, they also reference the ancient culture of Montserrat and its original fishing communities. The sinewy, stocking-like structures simultaneously contain, reveal, and conceal their contents—seeds, fruit stones, and skins—which, in turn, serve as anchoring weights.
Ryan has a particular interest in plant germination—how seeds travel from one location to another and the environmental conditions they need to take root. This migration functions as a personal metaphor while also alluding to the history of trade across the globe. Cocoa pods, soursop and orange skins, drift seeds, mango and avocado stones are either left to dry or are cast, like a group of clay soursop skins glazed with volcanic ash from Montserrat (or Alliouagana, as it was known before the arrival of Europeans). Various single works reside at specific junctures within the space, including Pouch, made from orange peel stitched together with thread, then placed into incandescent crimson mesh.
The multi-part Infection underscores the common theme pervading the exhibition—the human need for protection, comfort, and sustenance. Ryan’s fruits and vegetables not only nourish, they also have emotional and cultural resonance, as well as medicinal uses; mangoes, for example, contain serotonin, while soursop is infused with curative properties. Holding Stacks uses soursop skins, along with food containers, net, paper plates, and bandages, while Its Own Cushion—clay pieces cast from medical foam pillows—explores notions of rescue, restoration, and recovery. Ryan’s mother, who was a seamstress, taught her to knit and sew when she was a child, and the exhibition acknowledges this matriarchal inheritance. Sewing, or mending, is a restorative act, a way of taking care of one’s possessions, or oneself. Hand-sewn and tea-dyed fabrics hanging loosely from the walls allude to the practice, while echoing Spike Island’s previous history as a tea-packing factory.
Process is important for Ryan. Though the use of modest materials has its origins in 1960s and ‘70s process art, her manipulation and repurposing of the everyday is rooted in an early scarcity of means. Making sculpture from commonly available materials has offered her immense freedom to work with disparate elements that evade singular definition. “Along a Spectrum” is packed with multilayered cultural references, exploring the different ways that information is interpreted and understood. Most of all, it is a celebration of the resilience of the human spirit. With this in mind, Ryan has been commissioned by Hackney Council in London to create a permanent public sculpture to celebrate the Windrush Generation—Caribbean people encouraged to settle in postwar Britain—which is due to be unveiled in October 2021.