I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness that characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm.
~Saul Bellow, Paris Review, 1966 winter edition
It was a blustery and cloudy day in Casper. I wrestled my car door shut as my hair flew in every direction. The pages of my notebook fluttered and threatened to take flight. My scarf pulled me upward as I battled the elements. The deafening rush of wind in my ears made the whole ordeal rather chaotic. I breathlessly entered The Goodstein Art Gallery in the art building at Casper College. I was not sure what to expect. I had purposefully avoided external information so that I could take in the exhibit of former Casper College professor Linda Ryan with a completely open mind. I only knew the name of her show, God’s Empty Chair. With such a provocative title, I was certain that Ryan had something to share with her audience.
Upon entering the gallery I was immediately struck by the quiet calm, which stood in direct contrast to the bedlam outside. The bright white light of the gallery created a tone of serene reflection. The show’s ethereal ambience is set in the center of the round gallery where there sits a circular disc of sand and broken glass. On top of this round is a tall and empty white chair. The seat itself is made of white paper mache and appears to be both delicate and powerful. The top of the empty chair is crowned with pointed copper that projects out in all directions. Who would use such a chair? The title of the show, God’s Empty Chair, certainly lends itself to the conclusion that this might be Ryan’s version of a divine throne. Why then is the chair empty and made of paper? It is clear that the seat was not meant for us, for the audience. In fact there is a sense that we are meant to look at this chair and feel excluded. We cannot use the chair and if we had the audacity to try it would probably crumble and hurt us.
While the chair demands the viewer’s immediate attention, one soon breaks through its initial spell and begins to take in the rest of the gallery. The walls of the room seem to suddenly come into clear focus. They are lined with crisp white fabric panels hung from copper bars and inscribed with the Brahmaviahra or the Four Immeasurables. For those of us who are uneducated in Buddhist philosophy, the Immeasurables are: loving kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity. Ryan’s interpretations of these Immeasurables are expressed in slightly different words, but the concept remains the same.
Such loving and inclusive words stand in stark contrast to the exclusive nature of the chair. We are left with more questions than answers, and that is exactly what Linda Ryan wants from her audience. She states, “It’s my hope that the viewer can experience a sense of the unknown and ephemeral, and it’s my belief that an artwork should ask questions, not answer them.” The minimalist quality of the work, the tranquil space, the dreamlike mood leads the audience into a sort of meditative reverie where we are free to explore our own ideas and reach our own conclusions.
It is my belief that artwork is meant to be a conversation between the artist and their audience. A dialog that can truly transcend space and time as art travels even beyond the boundaries of the artist’s life. This is one of the great things about art and the very best art creates an imagined conversation between at least two people: the artist and the viewer. Ryan has opened this door and given us a small glimpse into an ongoing dialog; this is her second discourse on the topic. Ryan allows us little more than her visual cues and a handful of words, but through those she provokes a powerful discussion.
See Linda Ryan’s exhibit, God’s Empty Chair, at The Goodstein Art Gallery in room 102 of the Goodstein Visual Arts Center at Casper College. The show is free and open to the public 9-4, M-Th and runs through Oct. 12, 2017.