If you wouldn’t normally give pageant girls a second thought, you’ve clearly never seen the haunting work of painter and animal-advocate Gretchen Ryan. The strangely beautiful girls that Ryan brings to life in her exhibition, “Little Pretty,” are part child, part doll, and, sometimes, part (non-human) animal. On the eve of her New York City opening, the 33-year-old, Los Angeles-based artist chatted with VN.
VegNews: Why choose pageant girls as your subjects?
GR: The portraits of children began with me wanting to paint myself when I was a child. At the time I was newly disabled—using a wheelchair after a car accident as a teenager—and pretty much assimilated to the situation by getting drunk. I thought a lot about the time when I was perfect, the way we are when we’re new. I began these images of my child-self, incorporating the sense of doom that I really should have had the whole time. I ran out of photographs of myself to reference early on and found models, stand-ins for my own experience, in the children of friends. But I really didn’t have many children in my life and I wanted models I could use more formally. The pageants were such a treasure in that the girls’ parents have star aspirations for them and have trained them to be in front of a camera. The strange vision of babies in makeup and thousand-dollar dresses is so unnatural but what appeals to me is finding a real moment, the child in the doll. Pageants are a condensed, intensified version of what all girls and women go through; being judged and valued for our beauty or lack thereof. These are portraits of individual girls who are more perfect than they will ever be yet, thankfully, have no idea what that means and won’t until it is gone. They are girls who will become women, a transition fraught with peril.
VN: You’re very involved with animal rights. Do you foresee including more animals in your art in the future?
GR: Yes, definitely. It is a difficult subject to incorporate into art, I feel, or to convey an animal-rights message. The images that are the strongest for the animals are the photos—especially documentary footage—of how they are treated. It’s just too horrible to believe without seeing it yourself.
VN: How do you combine your roles as artist and activist?
GR: I volunteer at Animal Acres and take time out of painting to give tours to children there, and I take pictures of the animals to use in my work. I also tell everyone who will listen about veganism, and give Skinny Bitch to all the women I work with. Of course, all the food at my opening will be vegan. The art world and the animal-rights world are quite separate but being an activist for the animals is a huge part of who I am, so it seeps into everything I do and all my relationships.
“Little Pretty” opens April 3 at Fred Torres Collaborations in New York, NY, and will be on view through May 13.
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