R E C E N T   P R E S S

The scope of Singer's psyche

Burning the Wagons of convention with artist Ryan Singer

By Mihio Manus
Published by Flagstaff Live July 28, 2005.

By putting oil to canvas, Ryan Singer is burning the wagons of conventional art.

Singer, a member of the Navajo Nation, hails from the sun-baked plateau of Tuba City but currently resides in a little town south of Phoenix called Maricopa. He makes his living working in screen-printing shop while juggling the responsibilities of being a father, student and an artist possessed with a twisted imagination. 

Many of Singers recent works have touched upon issues that have confronted Native Americans for years. Take his "Wagon Burner" painting for instance. It's a relatively simple, symbolic piece that incorporates a cautionary yellow street sign boasting a burning wagon as its warning.

"I think it's a good symbol. There's no words, it's just a common everyday thing you see," Singer says. "It's humorous and serious at the same time."

Back in '98 while Singer was working at a construction site and living in Las Vegas, he remembers being called a "wagon burner" by one of his co-workers. 

"It was something that this guy said to me and I took it in a weird way like, 'What are you talking about? I'm no wagon burner,'" he says. "But after I thought about it, it got more complicated. It wasn't really directed at me. It was directed at me being Native American and all Native Americans were given this stereotypical name."

This instance was locked away and stored in his memory. It wasn't until years later, as Singer was dozing off into dreamland that the symbol came to him. He immediately awoke, sketched the image out, and then returned to slumber.

"If I didn't record it, I don't know if I would have even remembered it. You know what I mean?" he asks. "It would've never came back to me. It was one of those weird things like an epiphany. That was kind of cool."

Beneath the frame and canvas there exists reasoning. He's not necessarily trying to be a champion against injustice but rather trying to expose an audience to an idea while incorporating existing symbolism and subversion. 

"I guess I'm trying to be more focused on my Native identity and showing who I am as an artist. At the same time, I'm trying other stuff, more surreal artwork," Singer says. "I have to keep going with it. I have to keep challenging myself and try to stay true to what's going on with me and what I see as far as being a modern Native American."

When you step back and take a look at the broader scope of Singer's work, you'll notice that his earlier pieces are a definite anti-authoritarian slap in the face to the norms of society and anything status quo. The pen and ink masterpieces that spill from his sketchbooks are filled with images of alienated youth rebelling against society through insanity, violence and animosity. 

"I was pretty pissed off about all kinds of stuff," he says. "Every situation that I saw that was wrong, I would try to draw it out. Kind of like to vent my anger. I would focus my energy into coming out with something that would make me feel good about myself."

But at the latter end of the progression, Singer's art has matured toward incorporating his Native identity as a channel through which he's able to relate where he comes from and what it means to him. 

"There's a lot to learn and experience. There's also a tradition," he says. "We have language and we have generations that have lived here before and sustained their ceremonies and traditions. That's why Iím doing these noble pieces recently."

Despite this progression, Singer still remains true to his roots as exemplified in the pen and ink drawing titled, "The Cactus Trilogy." The piece is a triptych, which a picture composed of three panels presented side by side.

At first there's a cowboy cactus mounting a rocket of which he's just lit the fuse. The cactus is thinking of a cow with a halo. Next, we have an alien out on the range sitting in front of a television and about to enjoy some coffee as the cowboy cactus smokes a cigarette in the background. And finally, the cactus is riding a bull whose front hove has turned into roots that melt into a surreal ripple of waves. I know what youíre thinking: "Huh?"

This is not typically what you would consider "Contemporary Native American" art but it's what Singer does best. He challenges your perception of normalcy. This particular piece he describes as Native American history in a parallel universe as interpreted through science fiction.

"I have my own ideas about what Iím trying to say and sometimes that spoils it because people have their own interpretations," he says. Often, it's the interpretation of the audience that Singer is after.

"Itís a cool way of looking into people's psyche," Singer says. "Figure it out for yourself."

Apparently some have figured it out for themselves and they've decided that Singer's work is deserving of merit. His talent was recently recognized by the Heard Museum in Phoenix during their annual summer marketplace and exhibit.

"I entered that triptych, 'The Cactus Trilogy,' and I got best of division for pen and ink drawing for black and white," he says. "I was surprised because that was my first time, so I was like a rookie. It was cool."

Looking at Singer's artwork, it's obvious that the attention he pays to detail is almost excruciating. 

"I get a lot of that influence from comic books and from studying a lot of artists who've done pen and ink drawings," Singer says. He credits artists like Robert Crumb as giving him insight into how detail can embellish and push the boundaries of an image. 

"I've got all kinds of influences from Pushead to Dali," Singer says. 

A little closer to home, Singer cites one of his relatives as having made a major impact on his gravitation toward becoming an artist. His uncle, Ed Singer, was a painter who had a studio in his home on the Singer Ranch out near Grey Mountain. One of Ed's trademark styles was to exaggerate the human form. He'd paint figures with big heads, small hands, and real lean physiques. This eccentric approach to painting was truly inspirational to Ryan Singer. 

Of his uncle's painting style, he says, "It wasn't just straight on and that's hard to do. Depth of field and perspective is hard to exaggerate."

Singer is constantly pushing boundaries of his own art and skills. He says he's in a perpetual cycle of self-evaluation that helps to keep him in check.

"With one piece, I'll be like, ëThis is it'" he says. "Then the next week I won't be satisfied with that one and I'll be like, 'OK I've got to do something else, I've got to top this one.í"

He admits that it's also encouraging to see art from up-and-comers and even old timers.

"It makes me motivated when I see young Native artists, or even older artists, coming up with something that is really innovative," he says. "Something that I couldn't have thought of or imagined, something new. That gives me motivation like, 'Okay, Iíve got to bring it up a notch and stay up there before someone younger comes out and knocks me on my ass.'"

Aside from keeping himself in check, Singer keeps the Phoenix art scene in check by selectively attending Phoenix's First Friday Art Walk. But, he's not thoroughly impressed yet.

"It seems like everyone is there to show off their fashion. Whatever," Singer says. "It's just a bunch of kids out there having a good time and people who think theyíre hip. People are selling crappy art on the street. It's just like a big ol' carnival and thatís not what it's supposed to be. That's why I don't go down there much."

Everyone has the right to be a critic, but this fact doesn't necessarily translate to mean that Singer boycotts the event altogether. He's had a few shows during the art walk and admires the quality work of galleries like Modified, the Mono Orchid, Paulina Miller's and the Perihelion.

"It's hard to get into those shows," he says. "I wouldn't mind doing a First Friday show because a lot of traffic goes through there, but I'm not too crazy about the art that's been down there lately."

Still, he's doing alright for someone who credits comic books, skateboard graphic and heavy metal album art as weighing heavily on his style. Singer's art has been featured at the Heard Museum, the ASU Downtown gallery, Steven Yazzie's Buckaroo Parish and the Hub Gallery to name a few.

Soon he'll add the Museum of Northern Arizona to that list, as he's a featured artist at this year's 56th annual Navajo Festival of Arts and Culture. Singer says he feels honored to be a part of this year's festival and to be featured alongside many of the region's contemporary Navajo heavyweights.

He says that he's always admired the storybook illustrations of Bahe Whitethorne and the distinctive style of Shonto Begay.

"When I see his stuff it's unbelievable," Singer says of Begay's work. "I don't think I'd have enough patience."

You'd never guess he was impatient by looking at his detailed drawings and surrealistic paintings. 

Ryan Singer is a turquoise spiked bracelet on the arm on contemporary Native American art. Although his work can be perplexing and exaggerated at times, his style is as refreshing and comfortable as a pair of worn out Converse All Stars. His images might leave you asking, "What just happened here?" or they may have you nodding like, "Finally, someone understands me."

The only way you'll know is to head over to the Museum of Northern Arizona this weekend on Fri, July 29 through Sun, July 31 for the 56th annual Navajo Festival of Arts and Culture. 

The Museum is located at 3101 N. Ft. Valley Road. Festival hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and admission is $5/adult, $4/senior, $3/student, $2 child, and is free to members. For more info, see www.musnaz.org or call 774-5213.

© Copyright Ryan Singer 2008