High style meets street art

Artist Ronan Boyle finds creative inspiration in juxtaposing the beautiful and the grotesque


What: Reflect, featuring Ronan Boyle's Sky Burials and Jay Hanscom's Rebel Where: View Art Gallery, 860 View St.

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When: Through June 2

Three Tibetan figures raise hatchets in the air over an obscured body. They're surrounded by vultures prepared to perform their part in the sacred funerary process. The winged deliverers, along with other predatory animals and natural elements, will carry the exposed body from the snowy mountaintop to its next stage of life.

The scenes in Vancouver artist Ronan Boyle's latest series are at once wondrous and chilling to those unacquainted with the ritual of sky burials. It's that dichotomy that first struck him about the photos at the centre of his multimedia collage series.

"There were a few things that struck me immediately," Boyle said. "There was this beauty, this potential for art. - But there was also this repulsion and shock."

Boyle said his own understanding of the ritual is limited, but that he was moved by the immense respect its photographer held for it, and the poetic way he communicated it in broken English. "Birds lifting to the next."

While Sky Burial, currently showing alongside Jay Hanscom's Rebel series at the View Art Gallery, is a departure from Boyle's earlier work in many ways, so many things about it seem reflective of the path that led him here.

Boyle's work to this point has been dominated by a dichotomy of its own: his "calling card" of do-it-yourself street art seems at odds with the high-end decorative abstract commissions he's done for expensive condos in Vancouver.

But his art seems to evolve with his life experience. The 41-year-old tells his story, seated on a bench at View Gallery, ahead of the show's opening last week, with a slight hunch, but an open frame. There's a candour to the way he speaks and an honesty in the way he presents himself.

"I never went to art school; I dropped out of high school," he said. "I had, I guess, a troubled youth. I was in rehab at 16."

Born in Ireland, Boyle moved to Canada at three.

"I grew up in West Van when I was a child, so I had a pretty privileged upbringing, not that I really knew it because I didn't know how anyone else lived," he said.

"I kind of was rebelling. I was pissed off, I guess."

At 17, he was living on his own and faring well. But by his mid-20s, his addictions spun out of control.

"By the mid-'90s, I was a full-blown drug addict living on the streets," he said.

Around this time, there were visits to jail and the birth of his daughter Frances, now 20.

There was no life-changing event or Hollywoodfriendly pep talk that inspired Boyle to get clean in 2000. It was a subtle shift in perspective.

"It's funny, the way it happens," he said. "I had a kind of moment in a holding cell where I was like, 'Oh, I'm done now. I'm good now.' It was weird. - I was actually feeling very sorry for myself at that moment because I'd lost everything. And then the idea of losing everything meant that I'd completed what I'd meant to do, which was burn everything away. Then I got very excited about the idea that with nothing, that means I get to create everything again. And it occurred to me that I was quite good at creating things."

He had always been making art, but sobering up went hand-in-hand with pursuing it as a serious career.

He started off slowly. In his first year of recovery, he spent a lot of time visiting galleries. He began diving in their garbage bins for matting boards, framing boards and other materials he could recycle. Friends began giving him art supplies they'd purchased but never used.

"And then I just started making art. Just frantically."

A lot of his work during that period resembled his influences - including graffiti-artist turned neoexpressionist painter JeanMichel Basquiat and popartist Keith Haring.

Like the opposing forces of beauty and repulsion in Sky Burial, he mimicked the layered walls where graffiti artists spray and business owners cover.

"You actually get these, what looked to me often as very sophisticated compositions created by these two opposing forces just doing what they need to do," he said.

"The kids need to tag and the business owners have to paint over them."

A friend who worked as a decorative artist saw his work and offered training.

Decorative arts, he said, is about creating a piece of art to fit an interior design - and it was a steady income. Here, he entered a world of stark and sterile home spaces.

Along the way, he started coating his work in resin.

"Everything was just sterile as hell," he said.

"You don't want actual paint exposed because it's organic. You have to make the art look like an appliance."

He left decorative arts after participating in a group show called Cheaper Than a One-Night Stand in Vancouver, where his work had an audience of thousands - and drew the attention of some reputable collectors.

Since then, his own art has been his main focus.

We return to the largest image of the Sky Burials series - the one with the three figures at its centre.

Boyle describes his visceral reaction of shock again, and then what followed.

"After thinking about it, that's what became interesting to me: That this would actually be shocking. When you think of taking a body, embalming it, putting it in a metal case and putting it under the ground, that's actually much more shocking than what they're doing," he said.

A friend pointed something out to him that resonated.

"They said that to them, they think it's about recycling. And that, in a very basic way, is what I'm trying to say."

On second look, the style seems a perfect blend of street and condo art. There are broken elements - messy drips and squiggles of paint that fit closer with Boyle's earlier collage work. But they're preserved under a perfectly reflective, gleaming resin.

"It's sort of very finished and polished-looking, but it's also very broken-looking. And that combination is something that has just always fascinated me." asmart@timescolonist.com

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