On seeing Petro Ryaska’s solo show at The Naked Room one might wonder why we are referring to “performance” when there are only acrylic-on-canvas paintings in the gallery space. Indeed Ukrainian contemporary art world identifies Ryaska first and foremost as a powerful performer, ingenious curator and skillful art manager. Yet it is painting, namely its most conservative genre, landscape, that is fundamental for Ryaska’s artistic vision and that inseminates his other practices and works.
Ryaska was born and raised in Bilky village in Transcarpathian region and started his practice as a self-taught artist. As a child, he learned drawing from a village teacher. Later on, he studied watercolour technique by copies works of an unknown Belgian artist. Finally, he managed to enter Transcarpathian Art Institute where he studied under the National Artist of Ukraine Viacheslav Prykhodko. The latter was a student of Fedir Manailo and a worthful heir of the Transcarpathian school of painting. Prykhodko’s artistic pursuit was concerned with “an activation of the decorative palette saturated with open and artistically improvised colours; a consciously accentuated monumentalisation, stylisation and generalisation of painterly depiction; a visual purification of the canvas space from the excess of details,” as art historian Galyna Ryzhova points. These artistic merits as far as they are from the issues of contemporary art were naturally embraced by the diligent student. The methodological studies of Transcarpathian art principles thus made Ryaska into a strong painter and opened up a career opportunity in the Union of Artists structure.
Therewith Ryaska retrieves the practice of wushu that he was engaged in since his childhood. Through the School of Performance in Lviv, he discovers this form of art. And he volunteers to program the exhibition programme at self-organised gallery Korydor in Uzhhorod. Finally, all these practices enrich and grow into each other. Regular plein air painting sessions as a means of creative growth for a traditional painter is overimposed with the collective practice of wushu seminars that are usually held in non-the-less picturesque settings. The well-mastered skill of painting becomes the subject of his first steps in performance and installation, which in turn allows for a breakthrough from conservative academism. Wushu as a body awareness practice de-conceptualises his performance work depriving it of excessive forcefulness and letting it be a matter of routine. Finally, his studio painting work becomes the imprint of his bodily experience and literally the record of his day-to-day “performance”.
Performance of Ryaska presents landscapes made between 2012 and 2019 in the places of the artist’s presence—in his studio in Bilky village, at the Union of Artists’ plein airs, at the wushu seminars, during his travels to festivals of performance and stays at art residencies as well as visits to numerous friends and colleagues. In this context, the paintings reveal a subjective topography of Ukraine. For instance, they add Crimea on its art map—due to Ryaska’s participation in local plein airs before 2013. But most importantly they become records of Ryaska’s special artistic path. This path, however specific it is, becomes real attainment for Ukrainian contemporary art in its contradiction—with conservative education, primate of painting over all other media, formidable gap between official institutions and contemporary artists and self-organisation as the only way to be contemporary. The founding fathers of the Transcarpathian school of painting would be proud of Ryaska. For as far as his painting went away from its sources, the spirit of his practice does echo and elaborate this tradition. Ryaska’s painting is performative, landscape is political and every artwork is a performance.