South by Southwest – Paul Ryan

South by Southwest is an exhibition that possesses an elemental swagger. Yet, the concerns of the artist are deep and profound.  He delivers a message that is fundamental to understanding the past, and integral to the recognition and healing that is required from past wrongs. – RALPH HOBBS

Black Butterfly. Blue butterfly 2021 Oil on linen 97 x 82cm Paul Ryan

Above: Black Butterfly. Blue butterfly 2021 Oil on linen 97 x 82cm / Image top: Arrived. White Storm 2021 Oil on linen 82 x 72cm, Paul Ryan

The Botanist and the storm 2021 _ Oil on linen _ 138 x 122cm Paul Ryan

The Botanist and the storm 2021 _ Oil on linen _ 138 x 122cm, Paul Ryan

Agave Coast 2021 Oil on linen 102 x 92cm, Paul Ryan

Agave Coast 2021 Oil on linen 102 x 92cm, Paul Ryan

One of the things we love most about Paul Ryan’s work is his sense of the theatrical and his use of black, black humour to express the underbelly of human instinct and egocentrism. He works steadily within his milieu of landscape and figurative expressionism, but constantly surprises his audience with his sharp pushes, prods?… angling to the absolute edge and packing a sailor’s punch through his distinct assemblage of imagery.

South by Southwest, Ryan’s latest show presents powerful land and seascapes, tall ships and motifs that echo ‘18th and 19th century romantic and travel artists. Many of these paintings possessed a swashbuckling sensibility, underscoring the misguided belief that the ‘undiscovered’ world was there for the taking.’ – RALPH HOBBS

This exhibition revisits Ryan’s past themes of colonialism but if his earlier works were the book, then this show is the big screen movie version. His sky, sea, land and boats dance together sparking an emotional ‘recognition’ in the viewer, tying up the loose ends of a narrative begun some time ago. It feels like he’s keeping his artistic muscles pumped in these new works. He’s having cheeky fun and we love to see that in painting. He’s telling stories and making waves.

Ryan is foremost an allegorical painter, his symbols and motifs shift and morph within his layered thematic, feeding the viewer with a hearty visual meal. There is so much to see and feel here, his opulent swathes of dark, midnight blues and iridescent sea greens slashed with the sharpness of white and dappled with tiny golden orbs suggestive of burning cellulose, an exposing of the truth beneath the bright.

We noticed on Instagram, that Ryan took some of his symbolism off the canvas with some recent body tattoos channelling shipmates of olde. Talk about living your art! These tatts seemingly mirror the exhibition’s hang which includes seafaring emblems and symbols in drippy inks that form a kind of sepia filtered wallpaper. Bedding history like the layers found beneath the lead paint in an old colonial home.

As fans and followers of his work, the emergence of the outsider-art-styled mermaid motif is also exciting, from extreme masculine iconography to these emblems of female strength, emerging like Gods above the landscape and echoing the hope that nature has a way of breaking through and realigning, unfurling unpalatable truths and putting things right.

As a middle-aged white guy living on the beauty and bounty of Australia’s Dharawal Country, these redolent paintings are an obvious jab at himself and his privilege. The romanticised tall ship, the swashbuckler, the Errol Flynn and Mel Gibson bluster of Hollywood’s re-contextualisation of colonialism. Deeply here is the way we all feel it, the genocide that was, the ongoing lack of acknowledgement for past pain.

As a surfer and ocean ally, it’s extra cool to see the artist backlash to these extreme characters and ways of seeing, the swagger to conquer, to destroy and to justify unspeakable cruelties is rendered beautifully, majestically.

This exhibition and Ryan’s evolving themes feel like a reckoning. It’s a powerful, frightening and robust show that we really hoped to see in the flesh – damn you lockdown! Ryan takes the helm as ship captain here, and if painting originally and meaningfully is as hard as navigating a tall ship through high seas, then he’s come through to the other side, careening now on the calmest of waters.


South by Southwest
22 June – 10 July 2021
View online at Nanda Hobbs

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