The Art of Joan Ryan

Joan Ryan explores cultural myths of identity. She combs through magazines and advertisements and does word searches on the web to find images that people see in their everyday lives. She then combines this iconography of popular culture with hand drawn elements in works that address identity – particularly identity formation in young people.

As art critic Susan Dunne identifies, Ryan pursues a singular theme: how imagery that children are exposed to as elements of popular culture shapes how they process information and see the world. And as Ryan puts it, “constant messaging, Internet activities, cellphone apps, selfies and reality television perpetuate narrow ideas of human identity and meaning.” Ryan teaches art at Lesley University in Boston. As the single mother of two boys and a former K-6 teacher, she saw close-up how children are affected by what they see around them. Her paintings are filled with images of superheroes, war and religion, illustrating how those visual influences affect and bounce off each other, seep into children’s play and affect their identities.

Joan RyanDeath Planet, 2010 – Oil on paper, 68 x 44 1/2 in. Gift of the artist 2018.18.1

Death Planet seemingly comments on masculinity and role models for young boys, especially as it pertains to violence. Our view is into a room, eerily gray, which the light of a blue sky through the window at left fails to penetrate. In the gloom we see signs of war – missiles, ballistics and the ZOW! BOOM! ZAP! Bursts associated with comics – along with the skulls of death. Big, muscular men with weapons are fighting in the battle.  Dressed as gladiators and wielding swords, they seem prepared to defeat or die. Less obvious is a figure at top left. His costume and his placement on a gentle hilltop suggest a pastoral scene. He is oblivious to the activity around him. The figures act out in a background space behind a shallow foreground. Up close to the viewer in a scrim-like foreground is the backrest of a red-painted ladder-back chair. Its reflection leads the eye to a drawing, one of three pages scattered across the picture plane. This and the one above it appear to be children’s work, the one at top right is a professional piece with ZOMBIE scrolled across it, suggestive of a comic book cover. Altogether, a dark prospect demonstrating perhaps, the little of peace and joy available in popular culture to our young people.

Writing for a New York City exhibition in 2016, Ryan reflected on the personal and cultural aspects of her art so well examined in Death Planet:

Much has been written on how media technology influences perception of behavior, thought and identity. While both social media and technology emphasize pop culture, fetishism and image commodity of gender, this emphasis has seeped into both toys and play manifesting in on development in concepts of self. These queries have sparked my interest in the interpretation and revision of gendered influences from popular culture and how play has potential to intersect with iconography, narrative, and imagination.

Fathers Day Superhero Art Projects

For those short on art supplies, Activity packets for these projects are available from the Museum Shop.

Lesson Plan – Superheroes

Activity – Superheroes and Father’s Day

Activity – Make a Superhero Mask