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Ryan Heshka. A fantastic history of Canada

27 Mar

by Ivan Quaroni


As we know, life and art are closely linked, even when the latter seems to be only the offspring of unbridled fantasy. Take the case of the Canadian artist Ryan Heshka: 44 years old, with a degree in Interior Design and a past as an animator and illustrator for famous magazines like Vanity Fair, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Forbes, Playboy and Esquire. Mentioned in the leading American illustration annuals, and having published three children’s books translated in many languages, Ryan Heshka – prior to devoting himself body and soul to art – had already developed his own very personal fantastic vision, influenced by cartoonists like Jack Kirby and Basil Wolverton, sci-fi films, pulp magazines and, in short, all the imagery of pop culture a young North American could absorb.

One might think that life, real life, hasn’t got much to do with pin-ups, superheroes, giant robots, monsters and the cardboard sets of old b-movies. But that is not true. If you were a kid in a country like Canada in the 1970s, notorious for its long, very cold winters, you would know what it’s like to hang around for hours at home searching for pastimes to ward off boredom.

Ryan Heshka, Fulvia and Ulva, 2015, oil and mixed on wood panel, 45x35 cm

Ryan Heshka, Fulvia and Ulva, 2015, oil and mixed on wood panel, 45×35 cm

The art of Ryan Heshka begins like that, during a dilated, padded childhood in the warmth of a domestic setting, while he kills time playing, reading comics, watching sci-fi movies, cultivating his own imagination, day after day. So far so normal. All Canadian kids have a similar childhood, in one way or another. But Ryan Heshka has something more. He is a creative youngster who draws a lot and shoots homemade stop motion films with a Super 8 camera. And we should consider the influence on him of growing up in a nation with wild nature, full of mountains, rivers, lakes and forests, home to animals like the elk, the moose, the lynx, the caribou, the polar bear, the grizzly and the beaver, and even fantasy creatures like Sasquatch or Bigfoot. A child, and one with clear artistic leanings, cannot help but be permanently marked by that sort of experience.

Ryan Heshka, Hockey Widow, 2015, oil and mixed media on board, 33x28 cm

Ryan Heshka, Hockey Widow, 2015, oil and mixed media on board, 33×28 cm

Anyway, Ryan Heshka grew up with a good amount of pragmatism, so he aimed his creativity at commercial applications. He studied and worked for a while in the field of Interior Design and then in that of animation, but certain memories die hard, and the impressions of the early years of his life stuck with him. And it is true that the more you grow up the more certain memories become vivid. So in 2000 Ryan returned to his old passion. Practical people might say that he passed to the “dark side of the force” and by transforming art into his main activity he took a leap into the unknown. But for me, this is the typical behavior of a Jedi: to risk everything to concentrate, body and soul, on something that more closely corresponds to the idea you had of yourself as a child.

Ryan Heshka, Canadian Military, 2015, gouache, collage and mixed media on vintage paper, 57x77 cm

Ryan Heshka, Canadian Military, 2015, gouache, collage and mixed media on vintage paper, 57×77 cm

Romance of Canada, the title of the second solo show by Heshka at Galleria Antonio Colombo Arte Contemporanea, is a return to the roots and, at the same time, a tribute to the nation of many lakes, seen through the twisted gaze of childhood. Heshka takes his cue from Canadian clichés and stereotypes to construct an original image of his country, a new identity suspended between present and future, fiction and reality.

Setting aside, at least for the moment, the monsters and the tin robots, the artist concentrates on the telling of what, if possible, is an even more dreamy, rarified tale. There is no lack of surreal and even noir atmosphere, at times, as is typical in his work, as well as the references to the graphic stylemes of comics and the illustration of the Golden Age, but we can also sense a more personal, autobiographical imprint.

Ryan Heshka, Masters of the Man-Dogs, 2015, acrylic and mixed media on wood, 55x69 cm

Ryan Heshka, Masters of the Man-Dogs, 2015, acrylic and mixed media on wood, 55×69 cm

Romance of Canada marks the passage towards a more detailed kind of painting, in which the typical chromatic palette of the artist – composed of blaring yellows, pale pinks, bright reds and intense shades of blue – meets with the introduction of new iconographic themes. The exhibition, containing about thirty works including gouaches on paper and oils and mixed media on canvas, is conceived as a fictional, imaginary representation of the North American nation. Each painting, in fact, makes reference to a city, a specific place, or to well-known aspects of the history and lifestyle of the country, such as rituals, customs, festivities, filtered through a gaze dominated by the figures of speech of metaphor and allegory.

Constructing his imaginary Canada, at the crossroads of history, folklore and science fiction, Ryan Heshka doesn’t refrain from taking some jabs at the domestic clichés of the land of the Maple Leaf.

Canadian Military, for example, pokes fun at the proverbial ranked structure of the armed forces, hypothesizing and army that seems to have emerged from the pages of Weird Tales, the popular sci-fi comics magazine of the 1950s. There’s a bit of everything: a three-legged robot, a woman with two heads, a platoon of riflemen with snowshoes, two swordsmen in funny carnival costumes, a sniper in spike heels, a sexy telegraph operator, a human target and movie camera, a kamikaze frog, a lobster standard bearer, a beaver nurse and a kid dressed up as a rocket. In short, it’s the nuttiest and shabbiest militia you could imagine, arrayed in order to form a sort of Christmas tree, topped by a scroll with an absurdly comical battle cry: “I’m sorry”.

Ryan Heshka, Canadian Home Movies, 2015, acrylic and mixed on illustration board, 10x7 cm

Ryan Heshka, Canadian Home Movies, 2015, acrylic and mixed on illustration board, 10×7 cm

Maybe not everyone knows that “I’m sorry” is a recurring phrase in the English lexicon of Canada, famous for endless shades of meaning. It is said, in fact, that while the English almost never use this expression, the Canadians abuse it. Heshka has made it the national motto of his private Canada. I’m Sorry. National Flag is a banner that resembles, however, a plate from a medieval bestiary, with the animals arranged symmetrically on a black field, as in the finest heraldic tradition.

Stereotypes, clichés and references to today’s Canada wind through all the paintings. One is about hockey widows, the wives of professional players of the Canadian national sport, who during the play-offs are forced to live in a condition of widow-like solitude. With his usual dark humor, Heshka imagines one of these women in front of the hibernated body of her husband, interred with his hockey stick, in the uniform of his team.

Winter Festival contains a veiled allusion to the events and festivities that happen in Canada in the winter months, like the one that enlivens Niagara Falls every year with fireworks and pyrotechnic spectacles. But the painting Winter Fall, with a mysterious, melancholy girl seated on a block of ice, also contains a terse survey of national fauna, with certain specimens also found in Red Beaver Bandit, Blue Birds and Myth of the Blue Caribou.

Ryan Heshka, Winter Festival, 2015, oil and mixed, 32x26 cm

Ryan Heshka, Winter Festival, 2015, oil and mixed, 32×26 cm

Another big role in Heshka’s work is played by landscape, mostly snow and ice, as in Canada in Colour, or featuring menacing mutant flora, as in Ravages of Pine Disease and The Floral Entity. The most disturbing and spectacular scenarios, however, are those of Romance of Canada and Masters of the Man-Dogs. The first is a small mixed media on panel that illustrates an episode worthy of Fortitude, the hit BBC TV show set in the Arctic Circle. The second is a choral scene of submission that could easily stand up to the cruelest fantasies of Henry Darger[1]. And, in effect, The Realms of the Unreal, in reference to the hypertrophic narration illustrated by the outsider artist from Chicago, would be a perfect subtitle for the Romance of Canada series. Also because besides being unreal and fantastic, Heshka’s Canada, like the real Canada, is still a kingdom, a monarchy, though a parliamentary one, with two national anthems, one of which is the famous (and British) “God Save the Queen”.

Ryan Heshka, Wood Gang of Lake Winnipegosis, 2015, gouache and mixed on vinatge paper, 24x18 cm

Ryan Heshka, Wood Gang of Lake Winnipegosis, 2015, gouache and mixed on vinatge paper, 24×18 cm

Politics aside, Heshka’s Canada seems like the dream triggered by an unbridled imagination, and overturned utopia halfway between Tim Burton and Wes Anderson, populated by wild creatures and genetic aberrations, aliens and superheroes and, above all, a range of pin-ups, vamps, femme fatales and cover girls that would even make Mel Ramos green with envy.

In short, this Canada is like an old lost film of RKO Pictures you always wanted to see, like the last episode of a series that has kept you glued to the screen for months, like the out-of-print book of illustrations you once owned and regret having lost, like the definitive cartoon that still needs to be invented, something you have barely glimpsed from the corner of your eye and can no longer do without.

In a nutshell, while I’m waiting to see Heshka’s paintings up close, I feel like someone who has never seen the first episode of Twin Peaks…

Ryan Heshka, Ravages of Pine Disease, 2015, oil and mixed on paper, 40x28 cm

Ryan Heshka, Ravages of Pine Disease, 2015, oil and mixed on paper, 40×28 cm

[1] Henry Darger (Chicago, 1892-1973) was a self-taught American artist who had Tourette syndrome, and is considered one of the greatest exponents of “outsider” art. His most famous work is a fantasy manuscript of over 15,000 pages entitled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. Known simply as The Realms of the Unreal, this gigantic work features hundreds of collages and watercolors that illustrate the stories of the Vivian Girls, hermaphrodite children waging a bloody war against the Glandelinian generals.


curated by Ivan Quaroni
Antonio Colombo Arte Contemporanea Gallery
Via Solferino 44, Milan (Italy)
From March 26 | 2015 to May 16 | 2015