Kathleen Ryan
September 9–October 28, 2023
Opening reception: Saturday, September 9, 6–8 pm

22 East 2nd Street
New York

Karma presents Shell, a new sculpture by Kathleen Ryan, on view at 22 East 2nd Street, New York, from September 9 to October 28, 2023.

A curved, yawning mouth, glistening pink tongue extending downward, gently licking the pedestal. Or perhaps the inside of a stomach, undulating as if straining to digest. A vast cavity, buffed from jagged peaks of rose quartz into a silky epidermis. Following the tip of the tongue into the hollow gut of Kathleen Ryan’s Shell (2023), a large-scale sculpture assembled from discarded car parts, feels uncannily like exploring the vulnerable innards of your own body.

The exterior, braided into the shape of a shell with strips of old fenders, their own paint skins stripped and burnished, rests in the center of the gallery like some prehistoric carcass, dragged out of the ebony ocean depths. This hulking, spiraled body is both ancient and futuristic, unraveling time in ways both destabilizing and beguiling. Sockets where headlights once sat offer glimpses into a pink, rippling landscape. As in other works by the artist, art historical predecessors are invoked with both due respect and a wink. Even while recalling the contorted-automobile sculptures of John Chamberlain and the ocular, velveteen-lined constructions of Lee Bontecou, Ryan’s Shell is an icon all its own. Industrial materials here are somehow more organic than nature itself. While the rust coating the steel brings to mind human obsolescence, this is not some apocalyptic omen. Something less sinister has taken place: a transformation. Water and air have reclaimed the manufactured as just another element of nature. Rust is porous, like skin; ochers, reds, and browns bloom like so many flowers from what was once sterile chrome. The artist has participated in this alchemy, too. Seemingly inflexible steel has been twisted and stitched together as carefully as a quilt. Rose quartz, a mineral thought to have healing properties, has been carved and polished to a smooth, glinting luster—its rocky edges now supple and corporeal.

Crouching, sitting, and lying in the belly of Shell while grinding and sanding its interior, Ryan inhabited her own creation. Slowly, mollusks construct their own protective exoskeletons, that is, the shells that house them. A shell is both a protective structure and shelter, formed out of a symbiotic, or mutually necessary relationship. Soft bodies, hard shells: Ryan’s work calls into question the hierarchies between strength and delicateness. Here, hard, defensive materials are  porous, responsive, iterative. Silky insides are as resilient as steel. In the act of inhabiting, a body alters the very makeup of its dwelling. Vulnerability becomes an act of creation. Hard bodies, soft shells.