Catherine Ryan is an Irish artist, in her work Dublin and its urban life play an important role. By creating little, almost imaginary worlds, she abducts the viewer in her organised chaos made out of toys and other objects she finds on the street.
A little, pink fairy reaching out its plastic arm, just next to it a dark red dragon lurking out of a colourful painted princess castle and a turquoise soother. It’s Catherine Ryan’s opening night of her art exhibition at the Icon Factory. The Icon Factory is a little artist co-operative in the middle of Dublin’s cultural center, Temple Bar. In a little alley just behind the famous Hard Rock Café, the Icon Factory gives artists, like Ryan, the opportunity to exhibit their work for free.
Catherine Ryan is a 32-years-old artist born and raised in Dublin, Ireland. She started as a glass designer and soon discovered her fascination with colour and sparkling light. Meeting Ryan for the first time, she is wearing a purple striped cardigan and a long, silver necklace with her keys on it. Her reddish hair is tied up in a bun and her blue eyes are sparkling while she explains her paintings to the visitors of her vernissage.
Ryan’s paintings are all very colourful and detailed. She collects little objects and toys she finds on the street and attaches them to canvas. The remaining spaces are covered by acrylic drawings.
“I call my Art Abstract Cityscapes; most of them are imaginative,” explains Ryan. “I used to paint real buildings in Dublin like the Ha’penny Bridge or the Guiness Factory, but then I got a bit bored of just painting in a representational way. So it was with Dublinski, my first piece, that I started to abstract more and I got more and more excited about all the layers.”
Almost every picture exhibited deals with Dublin or the Irish identity. In her art Ryan deals with Dublin’s buildings, the Irish drinking problem, the Celtic Tiger and the recession. Still, Ryan herself does not really know why she makes Dublin such a big part of her art. “I guess I’m pretty obsessed with the Irish identity,” she says. “After I came back from [being] abroad it all hit me. I heard all the languages and I suddenly realized that it’s much more vibrant and interesting and a much colorful city than when I was a teenager.
“I was always obsessed with buildings because even though there are no people in my work, buildings are about people because that’s where they live and work and sleep,” continues Ryan. “I was always interested in buildings and I guess it’s about Dublin because I have never lived somewhere else. I spent some months in Barcelona but I suppose Dublin is what I know.” To show how close Dublin is to her heart, Ryan even attached the underwire of a bra to one of her pieces.
Her work also includes a painting of the Liberty Belle skyscraper, one of Dublin’s first skyscrapers. “So many people think it’s really ugly,” Ryan says. “But I like it, it’s part of the city and it reflects Dublin. Even though Dublin is a small city, there are so many layers to Dublin. There are so many parts you never go to, all the different people and lives. Everything is crossed over and connected and that makes the city alive in itself.”
Layers play a very big role in Ryan’s paintings. At the first glance they sometimes seem to be chaotic with different colours, toys and objects just randomly put together. But if you take time and have a closer look, you will find structure and deeper meanings. “I don’t see my pictures properly until I look at them on the laptop,” she says. “There are always some things I don’t do consciously but they just come out. They all tell a story.
“Sometimes people think that they are just for kids but I like to say that they are a bit like the Simpsons: it’s not just for kids,” Ryan continues. “One of my pieces is The Eye of the Tiger and that’s very obvious what it is about. It has a little toilet on it. We were quite foolish because when we had money we weren’t responsible, and that’s why everything went down the toilet. And [there is a] number one on there because we thought we were number one.”
“I suppose my work is kind of fun and I think we Irish people like to take the piss and we laugh at ourselves,” the artist explains. “I just like to have a sense of humor about it.” Apart from the city, the economy and Irish life, she is also inspired by finding out what it means to live in this time and in the world around us.
“Suddenly everybody is walking around with their phones and I am not even on Facebook,” says Ryan. “All the new things that happened so fast and now suddenly they are just normal.”
The recession hit the city hard and also affected its culture and art scene – but not just in a negative way. According to Ryan, there are even more artists and painters now than before the recession. People lost their jobs, so now they have more time and they start to paint. Competition is bigger because there are more people making things.
And even though the liveliest art scene in Ireland is a lot about installations, video work and performances at the moment, Ryan wants to stick to her paintings: “A lot of Irish paintings are still very serious and landscapes and quite dark,” she explains.
“People are sometimes a bit shocked by my work when they see that there are actual toys on it. Maybe they don’t know that it is ok,” says Ryan. “That art can be anything you want.”