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WV Photographer John Ryan Brubaker Awarded Exhibition in Arlington, VA


John Ryan Brubaker’s On Confluence Exhibition

Thomas, WV-based photographer and Tamarack Foundation for the Arts Rural to Urban Markets program participant John Ryan Brubaker was chosen to exhibit work as part of the Arlington Arts Center‘s (AAC) prestigious SOLOS series. Each spring and fall, artists from across the Mid-Atlantic region are selected to exhibit their art in one of the seven gallery spaces at the AAC. More than 100 artists applied to be a part of the SOLOS exhibitions this year, and 14 finalists were selected. John Ryan is the only artist from West Virginia showing work as part of the spring 2017 SOLOS exhibitions.

John Ryan’s show On Confluence opened on April 8, 2017 and will be on view through June 11, 2017. The series on view includes photographs captured during walks in the North Fork River in Thomas, West Virginia. To process the images, John Ryan created a new method to develop photographs based on the Van Dyke Brown print process invented around the turn of the 20th Century.

John Ryan Brubaker at the On Confluence Exhibition Opening

In creating the photographs, John Ryan employed the subject matter – the North Fork River – for use as the developing agent of the images. The river, which flows through a town born out of the coal industry around the same time the Van Dyke process was created, has long been considered off-limits by locals and tourists due to pollution caused by acid mine drainage from abandoned coal mines.

The mine system surrounding the river covers 1100 acres and discharges an average of two million gallons of water each day into the North Fork. This water has a pH in the 3.0 – 5.0 range with heavy concentrations of iron and aluminum. John Ryan discovered that the chemical composition of the water flowing in the North Fork mirrors the conditions needed for the Van Dyke process. Following months of trial and error, John Ryan formed a methodology to develop his prints using the river water itself. The images are exposed on the riverbanks using sunlight.

Both: John Ryan Brubaker, Untitled, 2015, 7.5 x 11 inches

The symbolism unraveled in these one-of-a-kind artworks begs at the parallel arc found in the history of the photographic art form itself – one of discovery, development and, following, an aggressively-charged leap forward due to advances touted by companies.

John Ryan’s body of work prompts the question, how can we flip a narrative now rooted in selfie-sticks and like-ephemera to bring about new perspective on a century-old creative practice?

The North Fork waters flow in colors ranging from dull browns to bright oranges, and John Ryan’s Van Dyke process yields a palette rich in tonal variety that echoes what a visitor would find on site at the river. The artist’s photographs capture some scenic elements, but largely feature abstract and detail imagery of the river and surrounding environment. John Ryan intentionally obscures his subject matter to force the viewer to spend more time considering each image, seeking out what the photograph portrays.

John Ryan Brubaker, Untitled, 2015, 7.5 x 11 inches

John Ryan, who splits his time between Brussels, Belgium and Thomas, West Virginia was seeking a way to translate his urban path-finding photography practice to a rural setting. He saw the Appalachian waterways as the ideal parallel.

“My work is often based on explorations of unknown spaces, and the aimless wander or intentional walk has become an important part of my practice. The experience of engaging with the immediate physical environment has become an essential element in my most recent projects. I make these works because I am interested in the visual environment of contemporary human civilization – I am interested in the infrastructure in which we live rather than in a particular scene or event. I believe that immediate visual surroundings deeply effect personal emotional and psychological well-being, and I use visual art to both explore and explain this perspective,” says John Ryan.

To capture the images in On Confluence, John Ryan was forced to wade through the riverbed itself. The rural nature of the subject matter meant that the riverbanks were largely inaccessible.

“My recent projects have all involved personal integration with space, On Confluence perhaps being the most extreme. I undertook an extensive research process with local water quality experts to find out if walking in the river was safe. I received advice from both water reclamation experts and local outdoors enthusiasts as to how I could engage the river without long term physical effects from absorbing the heavy metals in the water. Ultimately, these walks became an essential performative aspect of the project,” says John Ryan.

While the state of the river is an integral part of On Confluence, John Ryan is not seeking traditional activism as an end goal for the series, but rather hopes the project will prompt a discussion around opportunities for photography to grow and diverge from today’s common practices; the meeting of art and science as a field of study; and a greater awareness of the possibilities to be found in our surrounding environment.

John Ryan Brubaker Walking the North Fork

Visit the Arlington Arts Center

The Arlington Arts Center (AAC) is located at 3550 Wilson Boulevard, Arlington, Virginia. Gallery hours are Wednesday – Sunday, 12-5pm or by appointment. Learn more about the AAC at arlingtonartscenter.org.