Daniel Day-Lewis may have recently rekindled America’s interest in our 16th president, but Will Ryman has had Lincoln on his mind for more than a year, ever since the New York artist began thinking about the work that comprises “America,” his new exhibition opening at Paul Kasmin gallery tomorrow. Ryman, who installed 25-foot tall steel-and-fiberglass roses along a stretch of Park Avenue two years ago as commentary on how the privileged live, has erected a near life-size version of the iconic Lincoln log cabin inside the Chelsea gallery. Coated inside and out with a blinging gold resin paint job, the piece illustrates an abridged history of American economics—in which Lincoln played an important role once upon a time.
“It seemed to me that the Civil War was a major turning point in how this country did business,” Ryman explained when I visited him last week at his studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “This piece is about capitalism in America—and how we got where we are now.” While there’s no direct reference to subprime mortgages, the cabin’s interior walls are inlaid with the products and symbols of the various industries upon which the U.S. was built over the years, from shackles (slavery) to arrowheads (Native American trade) to bullets (weaponry) to phone cords (telecom) to soda can tabs (fast food) to pills (pharmaceuticals) to the iPads and iPhones that fit snugly together as bricks in the cabin’s fireplace. It would be easy to assume that some of these powerful symbols (especially the chained shackles, in all their ostentatious gold) are a moral condemnation of the horrors we've managed to monetize, but Ryman insists that the meticulously patterned walls are there to illustrate rather than criticize. “I like to pick a spot on the wall,” he said as we stood inside the gilded cabin, “and just let the piece sort of just drag my eye around the different shapes and textures of these products.”
Although he did dig into historical texts and theory, Ryman takes care to emphasize that he’s not a history buff. “I’m no expert,” Ryman told me. “But I had a question: How did all these things happen? This was my way of finding out.”