While the title of Portlander Ryan Jacob Smith's exhibition at the Independent Publishing Resource Center ostensibly refers to his use of found and recycled materials, the imagery in The Young Alchemists fittingly splices the scientific with the magical. In these paintings, executed on frayed paper, bark-edged slices of trees, and the gallery walls themselves, he maps the interconnectedness of the universe, noting the physical resemblances between our own anatomical makeup and other natural phenomena. The forking branches and root systems of trees conjure circuitous veins. Likewise, a candy-colored vein splits in "New Artery," while the same form recurs as a wishbone in "One Last Wish." And throughout, Smith overlays his images with numerous rocks and crystals, drawn together in a web of dotted lines or, perhaps, a force field of positive energy. It's a spiritual mash-up that seems as indebted to Zen philosophy as it does New Age crystal worship.
Smith's investigation of this kind of religious equilibrium between internal and external physicality is fascinating. Not only does it assert some totalized cosmic order, but it does so through evidence that can be both comprehended (in recurring designs and patterns) and apprehended (in the sense of connection between all things). In a series of triangular diagrams and flow charts, Smith divides abstract concepts such as "dreams," "life," and "death" into "kingdoms" in the same manner a biologist would categorize flora and fauna. Comically, he only includes rocks and crystals in these classification schemes. Recalling the titular alchemists, he seems to imply that these base materials are redeemed as "gold" by some imperceptible essence which resides inside of them.
While Smith's graphic depiction of his conceptual conceit is strong, the show would have benefited from a less narrowly focused scope. He recycles the same few images—throughout the exhibition, relying on a similarly restrictive palette of yellows, browns, and pinks. The effect is a kind of monochromatic repetition that stunts the reach and impact of such an all-encompassing concept. After all, if there is a universal design to discern within our bodies and in the world we inhabit, you'd think it might appear in more than a few emblematic images.