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Van Ryzin: Sean Ripple captures, and sometimes creates, visual poetry

Rainbow-hued candies strewn on a sunlit stretch of suburban road. Rows of soda bottles on grocery store shelves. A stack of jewel-toned towels in a big-box store.

The most quotidian things and places make creative fodder for artist Sean Ripple.

Merchandise in a retail display or an innocuous section of sidewalk are to Ripple what majestic mountains or fields of flowers are to traditional landscape painters — scenes worthy of artistic celebration.

And he celebrates in the most contemporary of means, taking pictures with his iPhone and posting them to social media. His Instagram stream— Ripple1213 — functions as his gallery of sorts, with nearly 900 images of street curbs, sidewalks, parks and also racks, shelves and aisles of retail merchandise.

Yet in Ripple’s hands, all isn’t what it seems.

He surreptitiously rearranges merchandise on a shelf or drapes thread on the carpeted floor of a store dressing room.

He repositions bits of found trash on a curb into a beguiling design or aligns twigs to spell out a word in the corner of a sidewalk.

Or he might retrieve a beer can from a curb, slice it up into flat strips, then place the strips in a flourishing swirl in the same spot where the discarded can was found.

Sometimes, that is.

Not every one of Ripple’s images is staged. Some are random moments of subtle visual poetry.

Like the one he came upon a couple years ago that jumpstarted his current creative trajectory. On a stretch of paved pathway in a park, Ripple chanced upon an empty ketchup packet next to which was a french fry neatly separated into quarters.

Ripple couldn’t decide: Was it an arrangement deliberately made by someone or purely accidental?

Either way, the configuration of empty packet and a single severed fry read like an enigmatic short story on contemporary life.

In traditional exhibits and as social media art-making efforts Ripple has been exploring what he calls “embedded aesthetics, shared experiences and diverging narratives.”

Ripple’s is street art of a sort, but refreshingly it is not on the monumental and forceful scale of a large mural or a wall of graffiti.

On Saturday, Ripple will stage “Neighborhood Watch” in his North Central neighborhood of Wooten Park. He’s created subtle little artistic interventions around his neighborhood and also found spots of visual intrigue, plotting everything on a Google Map posted to his website (

Well, almost everything.

Ripple might just be staging a few surprise little installations as a means to urge people to look more carefully as they stroll the streets of his neighborhood, which is bordered by West Anderson Lane, Burnet Road and U.S. 183.

However, whether people perceive that a visual moment is an authored occurrence designed to catch their attention doesn’t interest Ripple much. His invitation to his audience is that they attune themselves to their surroundings, look carefully at something they might ordinarily overlook and give everything they see some critical consideration.

“I’m disrupting the camouflage,” Ripple says of his work. “Or maybe calling attention to the camouflage.”

Ripple is also having fun, recalling that the first party he ever hosted, when he was in the fifth grade, was an Easter egg hunt.

“I feel like I’ve been riffing on that theme in some way ever since,” he says.

Ripple, who is the assistant curator at the Contemporary Austin, started his conceptual experiments using the public arena as his canvas when he lived in the SoCo neighborhood. He created small paintings that he left out on the streets with an invitation to whoever picked the painting up to email a suggested title for the piece and even a suggested price.

When Ripple and his wife moved to Wooten Park several years ago, he began considering the sidewalks, lawns and calm streets of the leafy mid-century neighborhood.

“I’m thinking of my neighborhood as a kind of exhibit space for this project,” he says.

But how to effect the social experience of gallery setting, of seeing art in the company of other people?

Ripple hopes participants will share their experience of “Neighborhood Watch” via the hashtag #ourhoodblike.

Ripple’s intention, after all, is inclusive, not exclusive. As conceptual as his documentation of found mini-installations and fake found mini-installations may seem, community and connection bear importance to Ripple.

“I like the word ‘telescope’ to describe the relationship between something I made and the image someone who saw it might post,” he says. “I like that there might be two different views of the same thing connected virtually.”

“I’m interested in what people might want to show to me about what they see.”

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