Antiquated Modernity-Do Not Seek the Treasure, gunpowder, gold leaf, graphite on Arches paper 32″x40″, Ryder Richards

David Johnson (aside as intro): I first met Ryder while we both where at Texas Christian University in 2003 while Ryder was getting his MFA and I was working on my BFA. Ryder was first the Teaching Assistant for my painting class and later my figure drawing instructor then eventually friend. Time went by and I moved away to St. Louis to pursue my MFA. Every once and awhile we would reconnect. Generally this would happen after I had been in the studio working and begun listening to one of the many masterfully mixed CD’s Ryder made me before my semester in Italy.

After a while we got back into conversation about things—what we’re doing in the studio, the process and how the “machine” works.  Ryder’s been a friend, mentor, collector and curator of mine and I thought it would be compelling to put our email conversations into form.

David Johnson: How’s it going? Last time we saw each other we were eating dim sum, trading art in the parking lot and getting our faces melted by Omar Fast at the DMA.

Ryder Richards: Yes, face melting at the Dallas Museum with a belly of dim sum and a car full of art. A really good day.


Antiquated Modernity- Power, gunpowder, gold leaf, graphite on Arches paper, 32″x40″, Ryder Richards

DJ: You have your hands in a lot of different art related practices. You recently finished a year long residency in Roswell making new and incredible work, you just gave a paper on the failure of the B.F.A degree, you teach, you are a gallery director/coordinator, you have had several different curatorial programs, you write about what’s going on in the art scene in north Texas and the list goes on.
I’m always curious on how an artist navigates his or her own practice. It appears that, gone are the days of sitting in the studio just making. Most artists, I know are curating, writing, showing, working for other institutions, working for other artist and freelancing (sometimes for free). Do you feel that these are different practices away from your studio do they inform each other or do you delegate them to different “boxes” or “hats”? Are you just trying to pay rent? Or does it matter?

To be honest, this question sometimes bores me. It might not matter, and as long as people are adding to the conversation, it can’t be that bad.

RR: Paraphrase: isn’t it fucked up how much we work?

Yeah, it is kind of boring to talk about how hard we work and how many jobs we all have because we are preaching to the choir; we are all serving a penance or brutal apprenticeship for choosing art. However, we did choose it, so we need to understand what that means. Maybe that can lead to change, maybe.

There is a problem within the system in that we need to have reputational aplomb in order to have our work recognized; we have to prove our dedication and seriousness before being taken seriously. In this way the system turns us into what it needs us to be: hard workers or great bullshitters, but more than often we become both.

I think this brings up the odd commingling of personal biography/celebrity and the art we make. These can seldom be separated. When I first got to Dallas I noticed a group of ‘usual suspects’ who were invited to do something in every interesting show. Some of their work was good, but more importantly people thought of them when it was time to put together a show. I needed to be that, but I also needed to be as smart and accomplished as these people, hence all the extra jobs.

Ryder Richards

Tower I, gunpowder and graphite on paper, Ryder Richards

I don’t really do all these jobs for the money, like there is any. I did when I started, but for the last few years it seems like I have trained myself to work all the time so I could climb the art mountain and now I can’t stop. The art world has turned me into what it needs: A cultural production machine.

If you get a chance read Greg Sholette’s “Dark Matter” where he talks about the 99% of the art world supporting the top 1% of artists and how each individual has 3 jobs: 1 pays the bills and is usually in the art world, 1 is a version of art that is commercially viable, and the last one is the job we need to fill our soul and give back to the community since we have sold ourselves doing the first 2. Is that depressing or simply what we signed up for and no one told us?

DJ: Yeah, we have talked about “Dark Matter” before; I still need to spend more time with it. Its great how he discusses the 99% working for the 1% before the Occupy Wall Street movement started catching on. It feels like some of the art world problems go hand in hand with the cultural/economic/ “the world is not the same as our father’s” problems. Very few people are getting paid what they are worth and have to spend time doing a lot to try and squeak by with whatever debt or finical shortcomings they may have.

On a more optimistic note, we get to choose this life.  However hard or monetarily unsuccessful it may be, it’s still a privilege. We don’t have to worry about walking 7 miles everyday for water–most of us have accepted that we have to think and make to be fulfilled. The problem is finding ways to do it.

Yes, no one told us how hard it was going to be, but how could they? Each artist has a different career path or finds validation in his or her own way.  We can only teach young artists how things have worked in the past and how to refine their studio practice and skills, but it’s their choice to work every angle to find success or define what success is for themselves.

All these jobs or titles may actually help my studio practice. I get to talk about, train people in, and be around the thing that I love to do. Yes, I wish I could be in my studio more or not have to worry if I need to choose between framing a show and getting film developed versus paying rent and grad school loans.

So thinking of this “odd commingling of personal biography/celebrity and the art we make,” how do you get started on an idea or working through an idea? Do you need to have the personal biography to create or does each new idea or work exist on its own?


Coercion I, gunpowder, pigment on paper, 30″x22″, Ryder Richards


Coercion, gunpowder, pigment, acrylic, wood, 70″x60″x14″, Ryder Richards


Commensurate, graphite, acrylic, wood, 70″x48″x24″, Ryder Richards


Conflicted (Installation View), Museum of Art, Roswell, NM, Ryder Richards

RR:  Excellent points: art is our choice and we are lucky to have it. I really resonate with the thought that no one could tell us how hard it would be because we are in a different time and it is silly to think a fellow artist/mentor could predict our predicament. My parents clearly told me it would be a hard life.

I am getting more practical about what I expect from a show: if 20 people see it, good; if I get some press, great. I don’t know if I can realistically (honestly) ask for more. Which leads us back to this “odd commingling” of art and biography. If put simply, people trust that they will see something “interesting” from “interesting” artists, but they are not sure whom is interesting at first. If someone can make their name synonymous with that accursed ambiguous adjective “interesting” there is hope that people will ponder the work a bit longer. Which is a gift.

On the other hand, I once had a lady at a gallery talk ask me if  I “just made art about social topics or if I actually did anything (Forgive her aggressive angst: she was fresh from grad school).” I defensively responded that she was only seeing one facet of my work, the commercial gallery’s physical objects. I was tempted to slap down my thickly padded resume and point out the community inclusive projects, crazily wanting to shield myself from criticism with my biography by using a slew of writing, curating, teaching, nomadic gallery exhibits, collective events, lectures and residencies as validation of something. This seems to point to this odd commingling where more is needed than art, an additional justification is often demanded.

As to ideas and working through them I have several that spring from reading (Groys, Zizek, and Lethem lately) or art world interactions, but more often I set up a situation where I force myself to create and fulfill new ideas, such as working in a collective with a specific theme and limitations.

Culture Lab had a show where I needed to make a piece with 100 multiples, so I started reading and somehow decided a ‘lost  aura’ could be regenerated if the objects worked together to permeate the space rather than being passive. I ended up making my first sound piece using 100 iPhone ear buds.


From the sketchbook, Ryder Richards


iComm, 100 iphone 3 earbuds, mp3 players, amps, shepherd’s tone, wood, acrylic, wire, Ryder Richards {2013}


iComm (detail), Ryder Richards


Culture Laboratory: An Investigation of Extra Terrestrial Issues for the Uninitiated, Ryder Richards

Sometimes it is more practical, like at the Roswell Artist-in-Residence when I built a gallery inside my studio called The Cube.  National and local artists showed there and I created some installations torturing a pedestal. Great fun. The whole project acted as a social/communal platform questioning public/private space while playing with gallery pretensions. Yet it also gave me a very practical place to develop other bodies of work and drink beer with friends.


The Cube Inquisition (detail), Ryder Richards


The Cube Inquisition (detail), Ryder Richards

After spending a year in Roswell, I am working on a series about informational vagaries and the monumentalization of informational absence as a psychological ploy. Ok, ok, it’s really about UFO’s. So, right now I am trying to balance my desire to go X-files on it with my desire to strike a more formal poignancy related to information redaction. Those inner critics are nipping at me to go formal.


Safe I: Contagious Within a Certain Circumference, Ryder Richards

DJ: That’s a truth that I need to remind myself of more often: 20 people at a show good, press is great and selling something a god-send. I’m often caught thinking about where and how one gets validation in the arts. Getting or hearing validation as artist seems to be difficult when your work is wrapped up in such a personal process. You can’t get it from the looky loos looking for something “interesting” when they don’t really consider what is “interesting” or not interesting in context. But how helpful is it if we have to keep validating or justifying ourselves? Merit is a muddy thing in the arts and even less understood by audiences. I’ve kept a core group of peers that can and will call me out when something is slacking.

In your projects, how do you set up situations to create, do you have self- imposed “rules” when making? Is it a different process or a different outcome if you didn’t have predetermined themes or limitations? Can you start on something if you don’t have a deadline or theme? You seem to go back to drawing.  Even with your larger installation you have or hint at drawing.  Is drawing where you work out your ideas?


Executive Order 13526 (file 231), pigment on paper, 15″x22″, Ryder Richards

RR: Looky Loos, indeed. Yes, our art making process is personal and most people who see it will be judging the work without proper context, but the only way we can balance against that is working on how our pieces communicate OR we can decide not to worry about it and keep making work for ourselves and those insightful few. I typically try to strike a balance, providing entry points to the work so that the uninitiated can access the ideas. That may be out of vogue given much of the purposefully obscure or vaguely pointing metaphorical works that I see. I think it is smart to make work that is open enough that people can fill it with their own ideas, but I assume that the artist’s merit or personality starts to count for even more in the interpretation of the work. If that makes any sense, then perhaps it underlies the reason why we must continually validate our work, which is really about validating ourselves. In a classical model of the art world good work would stand on it’s own, but contemporary art does not need to follow that structure, especially as it becomes intertwined with socio-politics and economics.


Executive Order 13526 (file 644), pigment on paper, 15″x22″, Ryder Richards

{Exec Order 13526 is an order to classify information for national security, whatever that may be. The file number is rubbish really- I just type numbers into the Dewey Decimal system until I stumble across a topic I like and used that number.}

At times I abstractly think I have a handle on the art world, but when I am in the studio I become classically stupid about wanting to make nice objects instead of being a ‘post-objectarian’ or whatever the latest frontier may be. When I go into the studio to make I am comfortable doing certain things: drawing and woodworking. With no rules I tend to repeat myself: using the same materials and solutions that have worked in the past, so I impose small rules on myself inside a body of work (such as “no gunpowder” or “strip away one component for each piece”) and when I really need a leap I make a new body of work with a larger set of rules (research information voids, physicalize a psychological condition, develop a means of user interaction, and utilize one new skill/media).

And, yes, having friends who care and know your work is vital. One rule my friends and I followed was to say, “yes” to every opportunity. Another was: “there is no excuse for poorly designed or crafted work, no matter how good the idea.” It is easy to make a crappy piece and declare it profound, but can you remove the roadblocks that prevent the piece from declaring itself to the viewer?  Do you want to? What is the role of craft in the piece: a distancing mechanism, a purveyor of honesty, and a dematerializing agent?  Of course, like most rules there are times to break them, but once they are habitual breaking them forces more consideration.


Safe I: Contagious Within A Certain Circumference, gunpowder, hydrocal, salt, 18″x18″x20″, Ryder Richards

Another imposed rule: DEADLINES may be the most important thing I have. They keep me active, honest, and humble… and a bit stressed. I make work without them, but a deadline and a venue tighten the knots on my loosely flapping sails. For me, the space has become even more important. Starting with a theme is easy, ideas are easy, but giving shape to them requires planning out how the viewer will encounter the work. I usually plot this through drawing, which may be why drawing features so predominantly in my work. As you well know, it is my first love and is closely linked to how I process information and illustrate ideas. My work, even as it moves towards sculpture and installation, is really a series of drawings that are built or building as drawing. The planning and actions echo each other. Especially as a drawing designates a specific point of view from which the work will be seen and developed, which lends a level of controlled theatricality to the work: this piece is meant to be seen from here, in this way.


Deposition IV: Hold Back All My Dark, wood, acrylic, 64″x36″x42″, Ryder Richards


RYDER RICHARDS Ryder Richards is an artist, writer, and curator based in Dallas, TX.  He has taught art at the collegiate level for a decade and has been writing art reviews for the past few years.  As the director of both privately owned and collegiate galleries Richards has been curating exhibits for 9 years.

DAVID JOHNSON is an artist based in St. Louis, MO. He received an MFA in Visual Art from Washington University in St. Louis in 2007 and earned his BFA in Studio Art with an emphasis in Photography from Texas Christian University.  In 2011, David was awarded the Great Rivers Visual Arts Award from the Gateway Foundation. This biennial award culminated with his 2012 exhibition Institutional Etiquette and Strange Overtones at the Contemporary Art Museum in Saint Louis. His photographs have been exhibited internationally, including: the Contemporary Art Museum, Mildred Lane Kemper Museum, Los Caminos, and Boots Contemporary Art Space, all in St. Louis; Isolation Room, Copenhagen, Denmark; La Esquina, Kansas City, MO; Newspace Center for Photography, Portland, OR; Maps Contemporary Art Space, Belleville, IL; and Blue Star Contemporary, San Antonio, TX.  His work can be found in the collection at The Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago. Currently, Johnson is a Lecturer at Washington University in Saint Louis and Saint Louis University.

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