Shape and Shade: An Interview with Ryan Bock

February 21, 2018

Ryan Bock (AKA Bockhaus) is a contemporary painter, based in New York, whose work in black, white, and gray, incorporates art from numerous cultural and historical inspirations. Bock's shadowy paintings and sculptures can be found on streets, gallery walls, and even the bar at our Juxtapoz ClubhouseWith a number of shows on the horizon, and a few very solid ones under his belt, it seemed now was a better time than any for us to get a look inside the world of Bockhaus.


Juxtapoz: What's your background like? Where did you grow up and when did you start making art?
Ryan Bock: I was born in California, but I’ve moved states every three to five years my whole life. So far I've lived in California, Dallas, Chicago, etc. New York has been my longest place of residence, just not consecutively.

As soon as I could hold a pencil, I was drawing. I guess I knew pretty early on that I was gonna do something creative, I just didn’t know what. By the time I was a freshman in high school, I was creating photorealistic work. I don’t think I really found my voice and began developing my style until like 2011/ 2012. I’ve been raging ever since.

2016 Crucifixion House paint on Canvas

You seem to have a fascination with history. Where did you develop that interest? What do you think a historical perspective can provide, that a purely theoretical or aesthetic lens can not?
Similarly always been interested in history. I remember really liking the subject in school. I also went to Waldorf schools for the majority of my formative years because my mom was a teacher there. Part of the curriculum of Waldorf is learning different cultures' ancient mythologies/religions; so I was absorbing that kind of material from like, first grade onward. 

One of the mothers of a kid in my class even subjected the whole grade to a Wiccan induction ceremony in the guise of re-inacting an ancient Egyptian ritual, dancing with snakes etc. This was in 5th grade. Long story I’ll leave for another time, but shit got weird and at least one kid left the school because of that lil' incident.

As far as what a historical lens can provide: first and foremost I’d definitely say context. I don’t even mean that as limited to an art history context either. I’m a firm believer in the idea that history repeats itself, so I feel that if we can understand where we are presently as a society, and even where we’re going, by studying our past.


What draws you towards painting in black, white, and grey? Was this a conscious and deliberate decision, or did it happen naturally?
I’ve always preferred a limited pallet, but I have to admit the decision to use just black, white, and grey the last few years has been a reaction to what I see around me, particularly in street/pop art. There used to be this thing called "colour theory," and then at some point, probably in the 1980s, people started using colour in a very uninformed way, and for whatever reason, a lot of people are still mucking it up today. Its not my taste, but its more than just aesthetics. For me, colour is an indicator, the same way its found in nature/the animal kingdom. Colour has meaning, and psychological ramifications. Red light, stop, and green light, go. I guess rejecting colour is my selfish way of making the point that colour should be used deliberately and with a healthy understanding of its power. I’m also on a quest to simplify; I ask myself "whats the bare minimum that I can render and still have this register for a viewer?” At this point, I’ve boiled it down to shape and shade, and I’ve been running with that. Very rarely I’ll use colour for a specific project or something, and if/when I use it again, it’ll be for a damn good reason.

How did you end up in New York?
I was here for part of middle school. Then, when I was going to college in Chicago, my parents were here, so I’d come for holidays etc. My parents moved back to Texas before I graduated, but I still moved here. It seemed like an obvious next step after Chicago. I love New York. The pace suites me at this time in my life.


How has living in New York, and within that community, shaped you as an artist? How much inspiration do you draw from people you work with?
One hundred percent hustle!!! Before I lived in New York I had all the same ambitions, work ethic and skill sets; I just had no idea how to get myself out there and get what I wanted. I was super frustrated, but at the same time, incredibly fortunate to fall into a community almost immediately and easily. Around the same time I moved to NY permanently, these brothers I knew from middle school started a small and illegal gallery/venue/club in Bushwick called ApostropheNYC. I walked in the first time and was immediately like “… yuuup.” I had my first solo exhibition there in October 2012. and through that experience was able to meet and collaborate with a lot of people whom I still work with today. Surprisingly I didn’t chill with many visual artists, but instead fell in with a hip-hop collective, and I fullheartedly attribute my ability to hustle and finesse from watching them grow. What to do, and what not to do. I have an amazing network here, and too many people to mention that help me actualize my visions. I love collaborating with my friends in different fields. There’s often perspective there you can’t gain from speaking with other visual artists.

Do you prefer drawing on three dimensional surfaces? If so, why?
Hmmm, I don’t think I have a preference. I will say, I have more experience with two dimensions, so the three dimensional stuff is more of a challenge, which I enjoy. Its almost like I can break my ideas. I’ll paint a shadow thats actually there, and then you can’t even tell its painted. Whats the point? I’m still experimenting with more sculptural elements when I can, so its exciting. I’ll always love creating the illusion of three dimensions on a two dimensional plane. Can I say I prefer both?


What do you think showing your work in a gallery can accomplish, that showing it outside, or in a different space can not? Do you lean one way more than another?
Again, I think I like both equally. Each has its own particular brand of challenges obviously. I guess its easier to target a particular demographic in a gallery. Not everyone goes to a gallery, but everyone walks in the street. I think, for me, one informs the other, and vise versa. I will also mention that you might think of the street as having more “drama,” or being difficult to navigate, but there are loose rules that people adhere to. Its kind of clear whats considered an offense or not, and there’s usually some level of respect. In my experience, galleries hold a higher percentage of pitfalls and unsavory characters that are very likely to take advantage, particularly of younger, inexperienced artists.

One reason I appreciate ApostropheNYC so much, (beyond a certain level of trust that comes with working with the same individuals over many years,) is their ability to break the mold of what a traditional gallery should be. From unsanctioned guerrilla pop-ups in unsuspecting museums around NYC, to the semi-annual “Subway Show” where we hang works in a subway station, they’ve been very successful in creating unorthodox and unique ways of showing art. By experimenting this way, they’ve been able to explore the context of where art is seen, and in turn how its accepted (or not) by the viewer. Exhibitions almost become more of an art intervention in public spaces. I like this kind of combination, and I try to apply it when, and where, I can to my own practice.


Do you see any distinct effects of the contemporary political debate influencing your work?
Yes, absolutely. Fuck Trump. But, thats not really enough, is it. I think white people have been complacent or worse for too long, and thats something I would like to address more in my work. I strongly believe artists have a responsibility to dissect the times they live in, for better or for worse. This is what I’m interested in making and seeing. As consumers of culture as a whole, we are way too accepting of “fluff,” in my opinion. I’m not sure I can provide any solid answers through art, but I can most definitely help open discussion. This aspect is hugely important to me, and also my biggest challenge as a white, straight, male artist in America. More on this as it develops.

What are your plans for this year?
This year I’m implementing the practice of “no." I have an ongoing personal project to design and produce my own Tarot deck (don’t steal my idea!) I’m learning to read them at the moment. Besides that, I have a solo exhibition scheduled in Paris. I’ll be there for the full month of May working with Galerie Ground Effect. I love these guys, they are super on it, and I love Paris. After that, my next scheduled solo show will be in October at DeepSpace Gallery in Jersey City. They have a really zany space that I’m looking forward to transforming. I’m focusing on solo exhibitions that are atmospheric and immersive in nature. I have my sights on doing something in California in the near future as well, so we’ll see what happens. All good, cool, and fun things!

Thanks Ryan!!