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Sometimes, a sentence can be so profound that it sticks to someone for the rest of their life. For the artist Ryan Travis Christian, that sentence may be a question that has guided his life for decades: “Why be some nobody in New York when I can be the fuckin’ King of Warrenville?” Now, Warrenville, for those unfamiliar with the geography of the Chicago metropolitan area, is a pocket of civilization that is approximately 45 minutes from downtown Chicago, 40 minutes from the “unmentionable suburb” that the artist actually grew up in, and seven minutes from Winfield, the tiny town of less than 10,000 people that the artist now calls home.
As with any urban sprawl situated on the outskirts of a major American city, the names and details of the towns dotting the Chicago suburbs don’t matter. One blends into another into another into another. What matters is that on a crisp morning in late November, as Christian dials in for a chat, he’s standing in a 1,000 square foot studio he’s just finished renovating. It’s the first time the artist has an actual studio to produce work in that isn’t just a desk in his house, and it comes at just the right time. After years spent producing hundreds of small, graphite-on-paper drawings, Christian has ventured into a more experimental phase that now includes larger, oil-on-canvas works.
It’s a major achievement for the artist who has spent over a decade living by the motto to “keep it affordable,” but it's also a fitting progression in a slow and steady advance through the art world that has seen his pieces exhibited everywhere from New York and Paris to London and Tokyo – all while he worked from the quiet comfort of the suburbs. It’s this sprawl he grew up in that has become a key ingredient to his art. Rendered in a rubber hose style influenced by hand-drawn Disney animation, this old school style has become both a signature for the artist and a statement against the “cold, soullessness” of computer generated animation that he’s disliked since his youth. As Pixar films began to push the industry away from hand-drawn animation in the 1990s, Christian found comfort in the old methods of artists like Ub Iwerks. “When I started to make these drawings [in the] old, rubber hose style, I just thought it was cool. It's so wavy. It's weird. It's got a funness and clunkiness to it.” This artistic medium combined with a focus on themes of sex, drugs, and violence has resulted in an artistic output that feels like the American dream of domestic bliss pushed through a meat grinder. The childlike style clashes harshly against his takes on everything from immigration and class divides to depression and alcohol abuse, creating a pitch black satire that feels like it could only be made by witnessing decades of suburban banality.
In his most recent solo exhibition, “Cryin Ryan” at Chicago’s Western Exhibitions, the artist took aim at eagles, a longstanding mascot for nationalism in America and abroad. There were eagles in mid-climax having sex in a a tree (Where Eagles Dare); an eagle on a scale that displayed the word “gay” instead of their weight (Gay Today); and, my personal favorite, an eagle flashing its large, hypnotizing anus (Flirtatious Eagle). His artwork is absurd and absurdly funny, but long before the artist became known for his outlandish work, Christian was just a kid swapping mixtapes and, very briefly, selling drugs in Chicago’s rave scene to spice up his quiet small town life.
Born into a blue collar family in 1983, Christian’s adolescence was defined first by music, and then by art. It was an internet-free age. An era where MTV and the radio, not algorithmic streaming platforms, dictated what songs and artists and albums were popular – and it didn’t take long for him to grow restless. “I hit a point when I was pretty young where what was available on the radio and the front lines of Sam Goody wasn't really cutting it for me anymore,” he recalls. “I went on a quest for other sorts of music.” It was this quest that led him towards the underground rave and hip-hop scene, and by association, introduced him to the experimental art stylings that adorned the mixtapes he swapped among his friends.
It was also during this period that Chicago, both past and present, became a wellspring of inspiration. At school, art teachers introduced him to the works of The Hairy Who, a group often bundled together with the larger Chicago Imagist movement of the 1960s. It was this six-person group whose surrealist and deeply humorous skewering of commercial culture and protest movements that left a deep imprint on Christian. “It was far weirder than what I was generally shown what art is,” he says of the group, while noting the more modern influences he discovered through regular trips into the city, especially within the rave scene. It was also through this scene that he had a brief stint in high school as a dealer for a company that produced parties. “It seemed great and lucrative and I was young. I never got robbed, murdered, or jailed, or anything,” he notes casually. It was all part of the adventure and, as he explains during our conversation: “If I did it all over again, I would've still chosen that path.”
This unconventional, slightly dangerous path was what would eventually lead him into the art world as he began his studies at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. It was here, in the “home of the Huskies, Cindy Crawford, and where they invented barbed wire,” that he began to inch his way into the art world. “When I was in school, I made the decision to figure out this network of galleries in the city. They have exhibitions and a schedule, so I needed to start going down there and seeing them,” he explains. It was during one trip, in the summer of 2005, that Christian wandered into an exhibition called “Thank You for the Days” at Bucket Rider Gallery (now known as the Andrew Rafacz Gallery). As he soaked in the works of Sayre Gomez, Maya Hayuk, Eddie Martinez, Megan Whitmarsh, and Wes Lang, a spark was lit that finally pushed him to become an artist. “There were these funky, little steamboat paintings by Eddie Martinez. There were these really funny, little text pieces by Cody Hudson. I remember one was a little panel, [and] it just said, ‘Fuck Christopher Columbus.’ I just really dug it and it all appealed to me. It was a complete package. After seeing that, I felt that if I focus on this and apply myself, I can be part of this, easily.”
While friends packed up their hopes and dreams and moved to New York to live in a “roach hole” in pursuit of their art, he began regular journeys into Chicago to check out the latest exhibitions and to buy small works with money made selling weed at his university. “When I was studying art, I really wanted to participate in the art world; I wanted to exhibit in galleries and meet other artists. I figured that it can't hurt to invest into it a little bit and support other artists that I liked.” For Christian, who was raised in a working class family, the squalor and poverty that would have come with the big city art scenes in places like New York clashed against a mantra that he has stuck with throughout his life and career: “keep it affordable.” It’s this rule that may help explain why, for much of his career up to now, he created art with the most pared down sets of materials.
With a piece of paper, a graphite pencil, and a desk, he used to be able to pump out a piece per day. Even now, as he balances his career with being the father of a four-year-old daughter, he is still able to create a small drawing in two days. “Once I have all the forms figured out, the shading and everything goes real speedy.” Still, there’s only so many hundreds upon hundreds of pieces of art you can make with the same materials before you start drifting towards something new. “I've been drawing almost exclusively for the past decade, so drawing has a certain easiness, which I like, but then I have to find other ways to challenge myself with drawing.” That new challenge was to “make a big, wet, slippery painting.” One that would force him out of his comfort zone and let him dive into an entirely different approach to making art. With his expansive new studio stocked full of stretched canvas, he’s learning to embrace the challenges of this new medium. “[Painting] is so slow because I'm second-guessing everything or I'm like, ‘Oh, fuck, I didn't know this does that. I didn't know this brush does that or this paint does that,’” he says. “I'm testing a lot of stuff. I'm learning to be loose and making some more crusty things and learning to accept that.”
With new works on display in Miami at both the NADA art fair with Western Exhibitions and at Highsnobiety’s popup HIGHArt Museum Store, the artist is keeping busy as he explores new outlets for his work. There are plans for videos and music and sculptures and NFTs have already been quietly created and sold. As Christian settles into his bright new studio to contemplate the future of his art, he can’t help but feel that there will never be enough time to put all of his ideas into the world. “When I die, I won't have achieved merely a fraction of everything I ideally would like to do,” he explains. There’s no telling what kind of art will come out of that 1,000 square foot studio, but there’s no doubt that the King of Warrenville will keep turning the strange warped reality of suburban America into unforgettable art for years to come.
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