• Essay

  • October 28th, 2014 10.28.2014

    Profile of the Collector: Ryan Kortman


    A few weeks out from his debut exhibition at the Urban Institute of Contemporary Arts, and Ryan Kortman is feeling a little more vulnerable than anticipated. The sensation is akin to what a novelist feels on the eve of her book’s publication, what an artist experiences before his gallery opening—whether for the first, or the fiftieth, time.

    Buying Friends: The Kortman Collection, opening November 15, will present to the public more than eighty works owned by the 35 year old art collector. Included are paintings, photographs, prints, and sculptural objects by emerging contemporary artists like Brian Belott, Jamian Juliano-Villani, and Sayre Gomez. Described by the UICA as having “elements of humor, horror, and pop culture,” the collection is diverse in its subject matter, presenting compelling images that demand a second—if not third or fourth—look.

    There is Cy Amundson’s Thoughts on Proximity (Moon Dog), which could be a page out of a children’s book (that is, one where dogs masquerade as humans and drink wine), or perhaps a scene from a very odd dream. Joel Dean’s Untitled feels more sinister, evoking a horror-film discovery in sterile, impersonal white.

    Offering some comic relief amidst other psychological investigations is Andrew Guenther’s Bite Me—a sunglass-clad, dancing, smoking hot dog. (It’s difficult not to smile back at a smiling piece of food.)

    A theme of Kortman’s collection is that things always seem a bit, well, “off.” Familiar images are presented in unexpected ways, the real story is unknown, the joke seems to be on us. Viewers to the exhibition are bound to be intrigued by the survey of works, and also curious about the collector who has chosen them. This is precisely the suspicion competing with Kortman’s excitement to display his works on a broader scale than ever before. What will others surmise based on his collection? “It’s sort of a strange reflection of my personality,” he admits with a laugh.

    But beyond the punctuations of dark humor and absurdity lies a more serious, contemplative tone. Kortman’s collection, one that has been curated over nearly a decade, feels deliberate yet filled with surprise. His art-buying process is instinctual but, as he is quick to add, not impulsive: a series of moments that ultimately lead to a feeling of, “I must have this piece.”

    While there is the art to consider, there is also the artist—an equally important factor the collector takes into account. The title of the exhibition makes reference to this. Kortman would prefer to collect pieces by artists he knows already or plans to meet—in either case, people with whom relationships are possible. He likes to find out about the person behind the art as much as the art itself. After all, he says, “It’s more fun to have a discussion than keep things to ‘How much?'” Such discussions often take place during studio visits, which offer the chance to see pieces up-close and in person—something Kortman particularly values over the easy accessibility of internet commerce.

    So what fueled his desire to collect art in the first place? A passion for fine art, his studies in painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the experience of documenting over 3,000 works of outsider and folk art for a collector. While at the SAIC, Kortman often attended the BFA shows of colleagues, including that of painter Mariano Chavez in 2005—which led to his first purchase, Chavez’s Night Walk.

    Since that time, Kortman’s collection has grown organically, parallel to—and often influenced by—his daily and working life. As a video animator and editor for Reagan Marketing + Design, he has discovered a similar narrative process to this art and his art collecting. Both have something to do with filling in gaps, curating, placing, and constructing stories from various themes and angles. A union of creativity and order underpins these practices.

    And yet Kortman’s desire to collect art remains undeniably tethered to instinct, emotion—and pure enjoyment. “I look at the art I’ve collected every day,” he says. “It gives me a ton of pleasure. It’s why I do it. It’s great to be surrounded by beautiful things.”