Machined Sun: Ryan Park at  YYZ Artists’ Outlet

18 October 2023

By José Andrés Mora

It’s always the same time of day in my memories when I revisit them: the light remains frozen, and time behaves differently. There’s something about the temporal quality of light that can quickly transform into analogies of time and memory, and, if anything, it’s because working with light is working with energy that continually wants to dissipate. When wrangling light into art projects, the continuous loss of energy must be constantly resupplied—like keeping alive a memory that wants to become undone—while the surfaces and filters that both absorb and reflect light always lean towards decay. 

In Ryan Park’s exhibition Under the Sun, daylight persisted on the surface of every object in the gallery, making the viewer step outside the forward momentum of time. When entering the exhibition, viewers encountered an installation of light boxes, printed photographs, and a single growing plant. The light boxes, built to the dimensions and proportions of old backlit corner store signs, recreated functional signage. In Park’s case, they also generated light to imitate how the sunlight would reflect off of their surfaces, and the photographic images mimicked the shadows of absent trees as though they were out in daylight. Posted on the gallery walls, the photographs appeared bleached by the sun, suggesting that time had passed, but was now no longer passing. In the corner, three plants fed by artificial light continued to grow throughout the exhibition, the only objects in the room that truly moved forward in time. 

Image: 7 Days A Week (red on green), 2019 by Ryan Park. Photo courtesy of the artist.

One of the lightbox artworks, 7 Days A Week (red on green) (2019), reproduced a common sign that usually sticks out perpendicularly above the entrances of countless corner stores in Toronto. These light boxes don transparencies on both sides and typically stand out from buildings’ outer walls so as to catch the viewing field of foot traffic. I first saw this body of work as part of Park’s solo exhibition, Seven Days a Week, at Forest City Gallery in 2019. The work was as striking and sculptural as it was photographic. At YYZ, Park placed this work in the middle of the gallery’s floor, thus commanding a solid footprint; its body met the viewers at their scale. This imposing mass and volume repeated itself throughout the two other accompanying light boxes, though hanging on the walls. In concert, the three works brought the scale, material, and visual language of outdoor objects into the gallery’s interior space, resulting in a sense of them being out of place. 

This sensation of displacement rung true for me throughout Under the Sun, partly because the light boxes so deftly captured the sense of sunlight and shadows of trees absorbed into their skins, making the sunlight feel dislocated from time. The series of works Sun kicked our asses (2022-2023) did this similarly, though more subtly. These four small photographs, printed on vinyl and adhered to the gallery’s walls, captured images of animals, posters, and other objects placed on storefront windows exposed to an incessant sun. Like much of Park’s work, they required a double-take. The photographs were bleached of their colours, stripped down to their skeletal blue and black pigments. For anyone familiar with printing, this discolouration signifies enough exposure to UV rays to erase the yellow and magenta, which are the most vulnerable to decay.

Image: Sun kicked my ass – $2.99 special, 2022-2023 by Ryan Park. Photo courtesy of the artist.

There was a magical chemistry to how Park transmuted daylight into the surfaces of these works, it  was as if the sun-bleached photographs were absorbing the persistent rays falling on the glass storefronts they depicted. Finally, in the corner of the gallery, three Perilla frutescens (or beefsteak) plants thrived potted inside a 5-gallon bucket, a milk carton, and a 2-litre Coke bottle, sustained by an artificial sun lamp. The work, titled Transplant (2023) helped to solidify the overarching sensation of displacement for me. An aromatic herb in the mint family native to southeast Asia, the visual language of the plant was straightforward. There was both a functional directness and a tenderness to the materials in this work, which I can only describe as feeling domestic and caring in the ways they bring life to a plant out of place, and was similarly punctuated by the work’s title.

Image: Transplant (Perilla frutescens var. frutescens), 2023 by Ryan Park. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Knowing Park’s work for some time, I am familiar with how the material and thematic choices in Under the Sun touched on his family’s background—they operated a convenience store in Vancouver, BC. Back in his 2019 exhibition brochure at Forest City Gallery, he described this as “a fairly typical Korean immigrant experience.” Today, what I find remarkable in his work at YYZ is how these streaks of familiar tenderness pulsated just below the surface of a polished and conceptually layered work. There is a sense of quotidian, in both the quality of his materials and gestures, that lands his work in this in-between area; and yet there is also an economy in the gestures that underlie his work, which also alludes to certain material practicalities. 

The cleanliness of Park’s material execution attributes to a type of care that I am interested in. For me, there is something about the borderless quality of light that quickly translates to an allegory for migration. In Park’s Under the Sun, this transient energy settled on the surface of objects that were close to his personal family history and anchored viewers in an impossible moment. This “arrested sunlight” first extracted a viewer from the forward movement of time, and instead allowed the elements of personal history to unfold after. In turn, this decision for the personal to exist just below the surface of the work pulsed the loudest throughout the exhibition. In my eyes, the machined materiality of Park’s aesthetic is most interesting when the personal narratives inevitably shine through. In this way, the most compelling aspects of Under the Sun were driven by the considerate duality of Park’s perceptual play and the personal tenderness with which the works, like the light emitted, were saturated.

Under the Sun by Ryan Park ran from January 14 – March 11, 2023 at YYZ Artists’ Outlet in Toronto, ON.

Feature Image: Installation view of Under the Sun by Ryan Park. Photo courtesy of the artist.