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Ryan McCann: Courage is Fire

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Wielding a blowtorch with nimble deftness, the flames circulate and scorch a wooden surface the way a painter carefully applies oil paint to a canvas. An admitted pyromaniac, artist Ryan McCann distinctly recalls setting objects on fire as a child and watching with delight as the flames consumed anything that was combustible. His adult self now directs the flow of the flames to create rather than destroy and the effects are striking. The brute and adventurous attitude toward making art can be linked to McCann's unusual story that began as an athlete and transformed into an artist who embraces his own physicality with a forcefulness he uses to rip, tear, and even burn his work.

McCann's interest in the arts began in an unconventional manner. As an undergraduate studying at UCLA, Ryan was a standout quarterback for the Bruins and because of the time consuming schedule was not able to major in the visual arts. After graduating in 2003, McCann had a professional stint in the NFL that was cut short because of a shoulder injury that led him to work in commercial real estate. His athletic background contributed to some success in the field but the budding artist was deeply depressed and eventually lost his motivation to continue as a salesman. This prompted his manager to ask him what he really wanted to do? McCann had increasingly created artwork since graduation and decided to take an enormous leap and jump into making art full-time.

Drawing with a blowtorch was already in his repertoire because he discovered the effects while playing with a cigar lighter on a wooden desk. Yet this process was quickly accelerated as he developed a much more complicated process of rendering images. McCann exclaimed: "I wanted to go big to get attention." Not waiting for permission, McCann forced himself into the conversation.

Portraits of athletic luminaries followed and McCann seemed to find a niche and a bit of success. The artist emphasizes: "I wanted to become more physical with the work and get after it with power tools and create some depth." The portraits developed further and he started to apply paint and text that displayed his sense of humor, a development that also functioned as a method to critique his subjects. "Ice Cube Melting" and "Original Art Not Available" display these notions of wit mixed with his Trompe-l'Å?il painting techniques.

McCann's destructive nature continued as he refined his craft and set his sights on the contemporary world through a number of pieces that ranged from sculpture to traditional oil painting. Creating a series of works entitled "Death To..." they feature humorous and ironic death scenes of artists that have been highly influential on McCann. Similar to the way Robert Rauschenberg tracked down drawings by his artistic heroes only to erase them from 1950-51. McCann pays homage to these luminaries while also announcing his own arrival by removing their respective footprint from his own work. The artists whose deaths are featured range from blue chips artists like John Baldessari and Chuck Close to a younger generation that include KAWS, Shepard Fairey and Banksy.

The most sensational and successful individual piece from "Death To..." features an image of McCann wearing a white lab coat and an Incredible Hulk Halloween mask. Facing the viewer, he is violently forcing the head of Jeff Koons into his iconic "Three Ball 50/50 Tank" sculpture from 1985. The distilled water splashes over the side of the tank and Koon's head replaces the spot where one of the balls would be floating in equilibrium. The balls are symbol of life according to Koons because they are full of air, an act that McCann is reversing as he forces air out of the artist in his devious act.

KAWS, an artist known for his toys and collectibles was invited to create a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon based upon his popular character "Companion." McCann pokes fun at this development as his version depicts the balloon sailing off into the sky unattended while a single rope is conveniently wrapped around the neck of the artist KAWS. The Disneyesque figure almost seems ashamed and unable to look at how he's destroyed his own master. A metaphor for success, McCann lampoons the artist's direction that has made him incredibly successful yet potentially empty.

McCann's physical process ranges from conceptually bullying his contemporaries to pulling the rug out from under cultural normality. Whether he is crucifying Shepard Fairey or trapping Damien Hirst within one of his own sculptures, McCann's darkness is laced with humor. The artist attacks his subjects and works with an intensity that is difficult to ignore. It all may have started with fire, but it's so much more than a medium. His fascination with flames started as a kid, but he now exclaims that he is attracted to it because of "its permanence and its unpredictable nature." Plus he loves the smell of burning wood in his studio.


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