Pimpin' With a Mullet

Artist Ryan Humphrey riffs on hot-rod and rocker culture

Like a souped-up, tricked-out rocker's van, Ryan Humphrey's work jumbles the signs of clashing cultures: It's Pimp My Ridemeets Van Halen. References to Eddie Van Halen's red-, white- and black-striped Kramer 5150 guitar sit opposite an homage to the flame-painted van of Jeff Spicoli slackerdom. And then there are the many nods to the canon of art, Duchamp's readymades, Malevich's opaque and evanescent squares and Lissitzky's geometric abstractions.

The work of Ryan Humphrey: Diver Down showing at Road Agent in Deep Ellum marks one more footfall in the century-long course of art's willful corruption. We've seen urinals, polyurethane blobs, Brillo boxes, fluorescent lights and elephant dung, which in each incarnation have expanded the boundaries of art. Now we can add to the mixture that beacon of tacky manliness, the culture of the party-in-back, business-up-front mullet. This is art that makes beauty out of mall culture circa 1982, the year Van Halen's album Diver Down and the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High came out. It is work that uses the material of the recent past without falling headlong into a soppy muddle of nostalgia.

Humphrey's work communicates on many levels. In its too-cool-for-school, rock 'n' roll references, it speaks to the he-man with long hair, high-heel boots, makeup and an electric guitar. By way of its sexy machismo it flirts with the less testosterone-driven, so-called fairer sex. Through its hard-edge color and form it enthralls the proverbially effete dilettante. And all of this connection occurs in a single work.

Ryan Humphrey's "Honky Spaceship" (2004)
Ryan Humphrey's "Honky Spaceship" (2004)

"Vantasy," for example, references painterly formalism and the social order of mall-land at the same time. A sliver of a van rises in low relief from the back wall of the gallery. It is the driver's side of a 1971 C-10 Chevrolet van that sat rusted in the front yard of Humphrey's childhood home in Ashtabula, Ohio. Like Gordon Matta-Clark splitting an abandoned suburban house in New Jersey some 30 years ago, Humphrey climbed atop the old blue van and sawed loose its left side. He customized the van fragment, giving it new BF Goodrich tires, shiny Cragar S/S rims and patterned coats of paint. Bright gold orange-tipped flames sit atop a vaguely rusted blue base coat from many moons ago. Stylized gray square patches of primer float beneath. A red line runs diagonally across the van, striking in one fell swoop references to the A-Team van and El Lissitzky's Proun work. Ahead of the van, directly on the wall, Humphrey has drawn a Southwestern landscape in periwinkle blue. Outlines of an open road and rocky mountain-scape read like Band on the Run.

On the adjacent wall, "Honky Spaceship" pounds out beats from a car stereo embedded in a rectangular painted landscape. Humphrey combines his hand-delineated landscapes with an outline of a dismembered car, a thrift-store painting and car audio components. Sound booms and vibrates from several large speakers hooked up to a transformer and car battery. As with "Vantasy," this is a work that invites touch. You'll want to crank up the beat and watch the walls vibrate. "Honky Spaceship" bears an orchestra for the senses, with music, the movement of thumping vibrations and painterly composition in both found-object and handmade surfaces. This is a work that invents a vocabulary of form through polysensuality and electronics, with the red and black wiring giving a new take on "line."

In "Guitar God" and "Wall of Black," Humphrey deploys old Van Halen and AC/DC album covers as readymade form makers. In both he organizes the flat squares of album covers to create Spartan shapes on the wall. "Guitar God" consists of several Diver Down covers mounted on the wall in the shape of a cross. The white lines on red backgrounds create an abstract linear pattern in keeping with the Russian avant-garde of the early 20th century. "Wall of Black" riffs on the powerful symbolism of the black square by way of several Back in Black album covers arranged in a large square. The white wall behind peeps through thin open seams created by the slightly tattered edges of individual covers. The piece references the many times artists, from Albers to Stella, have queried the square as a formal trope.

In "Spears," several honed lances are mounted on the wall as though an anthropologist's collection of indigenous hunting tools or set pieces from the episode of Gilligan's Island with the Kupakai warriors. Humphrey made the spears from steel, baling wire, old mop handles, broomsticks and paint poles, much of which he found on the streets of New York. Humphrey claims them to be potential weapons of an angry urban working class. They also read as though mocking the white-man machismo of big-game hunter Ted Nugent's exotic weaponry.

In "Freestyle Bike," Humphrey rethinks the readymade by Duchamp, "Bicycle Wheel" (1913), in terms of BMX culture and the jaw-breaking high jinks of Jackass. A fat tire from a BMX bike sits on top of a shiny red stool. A brake on the lower leg of the stool is an invitation to turn the stool upside down and burn rubber on the gallery's chic concrete floor. Humphrey took liberties on opening night, careening through the crowd on this customized unicycle.

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