Painter Ryan Desmond takes photos. His mind takes it from there.

Ryan Desmond, with "Shawn." - STEPHEN SCHLANGE
Stephen Schlange
Ryan Desmond, with "Shawn."

As the eye works its way across a Ryan Desmond painting, it notices a certain careful fidelity to real life. He employs intricate brushwork to a painting of his father squinting introspectively. A similarly painstaking process went into rendering a scene of his friend Garret putting an entire slice of pizza in his mouth.

Initially caught on camera, Desmond translates the vulnerability of these “off moments” faithfully to canvas. But sometimes Desmond’s translations themselves become off moments.

That’s when things get interesting. Desmond has been a part of six shows in the last three months and was one of the more interesting artists to show at Terrain 2010. (Full disclosure: I helped organize that event.) He’s been establishing himself as a catalyst in the scene as well, planning two underground exhibitions last year.

For this month’s solo show at the Baby Bar, Desmond planned a series of paintings that meditated on the desolation — natural and man-made — of our area. There was to be a sweeping aerial landscape of the scablands, a painting of the propane tank behind Ming Wah and another of a freeway merger sign.

But a funny thing happened on the way to thematic uniformity. “I was painting with a mean headache,” Desmond says. And by “headache,” he means hangover. “Just a wicked migraine,” he reiterates. “Painted through it.”

Which doesn’t mean he stuck to the vision. He did the opposite, following the pain where it took him. The street sign became a two-tone painting of his friend Shawn based on a picture Desmond had “from when we were shooting guns.” The photo “kinda looked like a headache.”

The scabland landscape became a flat mural of whole vegetables and fish, because his head felt like an onion.

The propane tank was left closest to the original intent, but as he was the pill-shaped curve of the tank, it suddenly looked to him like a pain reliever. He painted “I 2,” the symbol for 200mg of ibuprofen, on the side.

Each painting was different than planned, and simpler. The entire cycle became about “stripping as much extraneous bullshit as I could from the canvas.”

Turning down the visual noise to stave off an artistic hangover.

Desmond's strongest work resides just there, at the point of tension between an objective experience — propane tank — and our individual perceptions of it — propane tank during hangover looks like headache medicine.

The photo itself is still important, Desmond says, even if it gets altered. “I like the unexpected depth of realism,” Desmond says. “Those are the goodies of real life.”

He takes pictures looking for nuances that get lost in the act of remembering. Photos are blind, though, to the filter of the mind and the additives of the imagination, so Desmond plays with them.

Minute by minute, our brains take sensory data of the world and bend it through prisms of experience, circumstance, worldview — headaches, whatever — turning reality as it exists in the world into reality as we see it.

Ryan Desmond’s work to date is a showcase of that daring second kind of realism. Stripped of, or perhaps fighting against, self-consciousness, his work depicts not a realism devoid of personal bias, but a realism gloriously Technicolored by it.

Ryan Desmond at the Baby Bar • 827 W. First Ave. • Mon-Fri 5 pm-2 am, Sat 6 pm-2 am, Sun 8 pm-2 am • 847-1234

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About The Author

Luke Baumgarten

Luke Baumgarten is commentary contributor and former culture editor of the Inlander. He is a creative strategist at Seven2 and co-founder of Terrain.