Ryan Decker would like to have a word with the people who labeled the era between the fifth and 14th centuries the “Dark Ages” — a phrase that scholars in the Renaissance coined to describe what they perceived to be a time of little scientific or cultural value. “The work made back then was so full of life,” Decker says. “Intricate craft and really just, like, creative, imaginative creatures, monsters, and forms.” The era inspired “Feudal Relief,” the designer’s first solo show, on view through July 3 at Superhouse, where he presents a “comical dungeon” wallpapered in vinyl and printed with a brick pattern. It’s furnished with a carved-wood throne adorned with bronze fairies, a skeletal CNC-milled mirror, and lamps made from aluminum emblazoned with neon botanical patterns. The space looks like it was yanked from a video game, which isn’t far from the truth: Decker made everything in virtual reality.
Decker’s work is part of a new wave of designers who are embracing a computer-generated, metaverse-inspired aesthetic, including the artists Audrey Large, Khaled El Mays, Harry Nuriev, and OrtaMiklos. The design possibilities seem limitless since the work is unencumbered by more practical concerns like gravity or the cost of materials. While their objects are intended first for a digital landscape, Decker and other artists also want to bring these designs into our tangible reality. “Everything that I do is just trying to figure out the best way that I can get something out of the computer,” Decker says.
For “Feudal Relief,” the result is an installation that appears to toggle between two and three dimensions. The Armet and Pocket Change side table looks as if it’s made of bricks, like the ones on the vinyl-wallpapered backdrop, but its surfaces are smooth. Meanwhile, the psychedelic Relic of Yore floor lamp appears to have grown from the floor, and tendril-like graphics ooze from the walls. More unsettling: the Fetus Cycle mirror — framed by bones that are embedded with fetuses — that was inspired by both the dinosaur-fetus models at the Museum of Natural History and the horror-movie director David Cronenberg.
Decker’s design education started in high school, when he learned 3-D modeling for video games and animation, but “I knew how tedious and terrible the industries are,” he says. As an undergraduate at Appalachian State University, he “found industrial design randomly, and I was like, Oh, they do 3-D stuff, and blindly followed that.” Today, Decker starts sketching in VR, using an old Oculus Rift gaming headset that allows him to design as though the object is in front of him. “It makes much more sense for sculptural work,” he says. “I have a hard time sketching any other way.” Then he works with fabricators to turn digital sketches into actual objects, which gives him a break from all the time he spends behind a computer, which is “pretty much nonstop,” he says. Rather than sticking to one material, he works with metal, wood, 3-D printers, glass, silicone, and resin, following the techniques that seem the most fun. Some of this experimentation has also seeped into his practice from his work over the past three years as a studio assistant for Misha Kahn, a designer known for an obsessive approach to craft and materials. “Part of it is that I just feel lost,” Decker says of his omnivorousness. “Other artists have a material and a process and they’re like, This is it. I’ve felt that with digital work, so a lot of this show is just a shotgun approach of, What do I enjoy? I have this VR sculpt — how about I try it in wood? Actually, that’s tedious. Let’s just 3-D-print that.”
The medieval theme for the show emerged from research he began last summer, beginning with the era’s ideas of beauty. Reading Umberto Eco’s essay “On Ugliness,” Decker was struck by how, in the Middle Ages, monsters weren’t perceived to be ugly, as they are today, which Eco pointed to as an example of how beauty is socially constructed. This led him to the Cloisters, where he was floored by the creative imagery and intricate craftsmanship he saw in the museum’s collection of medieval tapestries, manuscripts, and sculptures, all of which inspired the show. But, he clarifies, “I’m not trying to re-create medieval work.” Instead, it seemed like a compelling reference to inequality today, especially as he read up on the concept of neo-feudalism, a theory that explains how society is moving toward a feudal structure defined by absolute power and a propertyless class that exists only to serve the affluent. His work, then, is an experiment in visualizing our frightening neo-feudal future: “If we do progress backward to neo-feudalism, what would that be like in a really saturated video-game-type mind-set where everything’s been consumed by the internet? I kept joking that the world I was building was just our world in a few years.”
Besides the tactile works, Decker included a purely digital piece: a looping image of what looks like a video game in which the player navigates a dungeon. “I kept envisioning a frat guy’s bedroom where all they have is a folding chair and a huge TV sitting in their own dungeon, watching this over and over again,” he says. “It felt so bleak.” All of the objects in the gallery make an appearance in the video, which leads to another loop: Decker feeling like the exhibition took on a life of its own: “It’s kind of like writing a character and giving them a defined outline, to the point where you’re not even making decisions for them anymore — they’re just doing things themselves. It kind of felt like playing God for a tiny little world.”