The ups and downs and rights and wrongs of the current economy have a hold on many minds, including the two artists in the Greater Reston Arts Center’s current Winter Solo Exhibition — Beverly Ryan and George L. Smyth.
Holly Koons McCullough, GRACE’s curator of exhibitions, paired the two artists in the show, which runs through Feb. 23. Although their mediums are different — Ryan is a painter and mixed-media artist; Smyth is a photographer — both thematically explore contemporary economic issues. They also are united by the unsettling, even menacing, vibe their works project and the need to look at them more than once.
Ryan’s multilayered works, McCullough explained at the exhibition’s Jan. 17 opening, deal with the United States’ recent financial crisis and its “post-industrial landscape,” especially the decline of manufacturing.
Smyth’s narrative, ethereal photographs, which use the Bromoil process, look at the people who play “extras in the movies of (his) life.”
In addition to his “extras” series, Smyth’s works include images from his “Braddock Project,” which tell the story of an economically distressed town situated east of Pittsburgh.
Ryan’s paintings and mixed-media works, which she describes as “reveries,” tell stories, too. Her figurative works, she explained, ask the questions, “Who are we?” and “Where are we going as a society?”
Her “Suits and Skirts” series references “the false promises and corporate greed that underpinned the recent financial crisis in America.
“I was stunned by the extent of cynical behavior on the part of financial giants on Wall Street. My feelings motivated me to deal with this subject matter as a painter,” she said.
The iconic image of the wolf that appears in many of her works represents “anxiety” and “threat,” Ryan explained.
A resident of Alexandria with a studio in the Torpedo Factory Art Center there, Ryan likes to paint on a variety of surfaces. Her somewhat abstract yet nostalgic factories are painted on aluminum, which more than subliminally connects the surface images to her thoughts about machines and idea of working with precision.
“The distressed, mysterious and oddly beautiful factories attract me,” she explained.
The contrasting emotions of nostalgia and distress are key elements in Smyth’s photographs, too, especially his “Braddock Project” series.
Smyth explained that Braddock, near where he grew up and where some of his relatives still live, once was a fairly prosperous small city supported by the steel industry. When that industry collapsed, the city went into a severe decline, with its population dropping from 20,000 to 2,000. It also became overwhelmed by residents’ cocaine use.
Crediting Braddock’s determined, Harvard-educated mayor and some current residents with gradually turning the city around, Smyth has promised to visit there twice a year for a decade to document the change.
A serious photographer since 1990 and a member of both the Bowie-Crofton Camera Club and Maryland Photographic Alliance, Smyth said, “I didn’t want disaster porn; I wanted to document the resurgence there in the most difficult of economic times.”
He added that his decade-long commitment is driven by a desire to maintain credibility. “I don’t want to be just another white guy with a camera. I want to be invested in the project [especially] before word is spread.”
While Smyth’s “extras” help to complete his own story, he has no direct interaction with them. He explained: “Although they remain at a distance, each extra has their own successes and failures, worries about the future and care for loved ones, and a life as complete as my own. Just as they are extras in the movie of my life, I serve the same purpose for them.”
Smyth has self-published a book online, “The Extras: The Extras in the Movie of My Life.” In addition to his photographs, including ones left on the cutting-room floor, the book, available to view for free on his website (www.glsmyth.com), contains stories he wrote about each extra. However, before reading these spoilers, Smyth recommends “making up your own stories.”
The ethereal quality of Smyth’s images in both series is heightened by his use of the Bromoil process. Labor intensive and time consuming, this process removes the silver from the more typical silver gelatin print and replaces it with lithographic ink by aggressively striking its surface with a stiff, ink-charged brush.
Though the images he creates are otherworldly, the process, Smyth admitted, can sometimes get fierce — perhaps like the state of today’s economic climate.