Something has gone terribly wrong in the world Ryan Pierce envisions in this exhibition of recent paintings he called “Written from Exile.” In each scene, he forecasts a future from which human beings have largely disappeared, leaving a landscape littered with evidence of their struggles amid environmental catastrophe. Pierce identifies himself as an “eco-regionalist” and is a co-founder of Signal Fire, which offers wilderness education and artists’ retreats in the mountains of Oregon. The spectacular natural beauty encountered there finds a bleak foil in the ruined realms of Pierce’s pictures.
In casting existence as a fight over diminishing resources, Pierce turned to The Painted Bird, Jerzy Kosinski’s 1965 novel about a child’s lonely survival in the war-torn Polish countryside. As he flees from village to village, brutalized by the peasants, the boy carries his “comet,” a bucket of embers for keeping warm and cooking food. The device is depicted hanging from a branch at the center of Pierce’s painting Comet, its glow the only human trace in a forest where trees stand naked except for swags of moss, mint-green ferns sprout among acid-yellow vines, and mutant blue pumpkins grow. The landscape in Pierce’s The Fog Collectors is completely denuded, baked brown and yellow beneath an overheated lavender-pink sky. Someone has pitched a tent beneath dead trees and strung tarps among their trunks, hoping to catch drops of moisture. Hawks circle overhead.
The plight of Kosinski’s protagonist is allegorized in the painted bird of his title: decorated and released by a cruel trickster, the animal is attacked by others of his species who fail to recognize him as one of their own kind. For Kosinski, the victimized bird represented the Gypsy or Jew; in a gallery talk, Pierce invoked undocumented immigrants today, despised by xenophobes jealous of dwindling jobs and benefits. Thus in Havasu, which bears an Arizona place name, he depicts the makeshift shelter of someone on the lam in the desert, hiding perhaps from vigilantes patrolling the border. An abandoned vehicle tipped on its side is draped with canvas; a plastic water bottle lies empty in the sand. Indifferent to the human drama, cacti at the impoverished campsite sport rose-red blossoms. Indeed, nature in Pierce’s scheme endures, albeit altered, in civilization’s wake: deer graze peacefully in what was once someone’s den in Umpqua (titled after a forested river valley in southwest Oregon), where a tree trunk has crashed through the roof, chopping a long table in half. From the rear wall, above a collapsed bookcase, mounted heads of two boars and a deer survey the destruction, adding an element of supreme irony to the scene. Here, it seems, Pierce is sanguine about the possibility of earth without Homo sapiens. In the meantime, he labors at his quixotic but urgent eco-regionalist project: creating technically superb paintings that give pleasure and pause to his viewers.