Images courtesy of the artist and Downs & Ross, New York.
Photography Istvan Virag
By Rachel Small
For a predator that dwells in darkness near the ocean floor, the deep sea anglerfish certainly looks the part. In lieu of eyesight, it dangles a gently glowing orb from a stalk on its forehead to bring prey within striking distance of jagged, sword-like teeth that jut out from a gaping mouth. These notorious physical characteristics only belong to the female half of the species, however; males are many times smaller than their female counterparts, more closely resembling tadpoles. Mating involves him latching onto her abdomen, where he remains permanently, his internal organs eventually subsumed into hers.
It’s this sort of uncanny union—one found in nature yet profoundly unnatural to the unacquainted human observer—that artist Ragna Bley seeks to emulate in her amorphous, abstract compositions. "These transgressions of categories, or what they’re supposed to be next to something else, that’s interesting for me," Bley says. "It’s also the displacement of things, maybe one shape does not fit into another, but still, there’s something there." She adds, "I’ll look for instances of these in literature, visuals, or in daily life, all over the place.
Last year, with memories of swimming in the Baltic Sea as a child at the back of her mind, Bley took to reading about the ocean. Knowledge gleaned from scientific texts gradually started to intermingle with fantastical imagery drawn from science fiction by Octavia Butler and Kurt Vonnegut. Soon, a new series was underway—one that, for the first time in her practice, she would paint it on sailcloth. Her efforts ultimately culminated in the ten paintings on display in "Soundings," her first solo exhibition at Downs & Ross.
Bley’s approach to abstraction is hardly mired formalist dogma. "I’ve always been interested in a space that is quite ambiguous, maybe in between representation and abstraction," she says. "Or, the place where you recognize [something] but not quite, or that slips away." Not infrequently, Bley will choose to acknowledge a figurative trace outright in a work’s title: a cloud of jumbled, yellow lines that touch a translucent, fan-like structure? It’s from a 2017 painting dubbed Bee Clue.
Whatever marine lifeforms that seem to emerge across “Soundings” are not literal interpretations of any one referent. "The aesthetic or images that you can see from the deep sea are there," Bley says. "But, they have not been a primary source of inspiration. That is, I haven't thought about replicating them in a direct way." Bley tailored her process accordingly, downplaying sharp, gestural strokes in preparatory studies in favor of bulbous shapes and undulating contours. These versatile architectures, like proteins swirling in a primordial soup, became the basis for her forms.
Then, with sheets of sailcloth stretched into frames and placed on her studio floor, she began spreading and mixing acrylic paints, often heavily watered down, across its surface. Once a canvas became covered in pigment to her liking, Bley proceeded to cut it into either two or four parts. Out of the resulting pieces, she chose the ones she considered most successful to become the paintings in "Soundings."
Evidence of this process can be observed in Hurled Life (2020)[pictured], in which colors at the top and bottom of the frame appear to seep beyond its visible edges, the motion of water captured in dried paint. The effect is also discernible in Witnesses (2020)[pictured]. Here, two separate forms looked to have swept paint inwards from opposite directions off the sides of the canvas, and toward its middle where they meet. Either half is distinct, crystalized in different hues and patterns; melded together, where one ends and the other begins is indistinguishable.
I asked Bley if "Soundings" is in any way a response to or reflection on climate change."I think all works are engaged in our political reality," she responds."Obviously, it’s something I'm acutely aware of, especially with [the ocean] being such a big part of our world that we know very little about.
"Soundings" was on view at Downs & Ross, 96 Bowery, 2nd Floor, through March 06, 2021.