Paul Ryan

Paul Ryan’s gutsy paintings pack a punch that has won him many fans over the years. Ryan is not afraid to experiment with subject matter. A 13-time Archibald finalist, he regularly collaborates with other artists and also musicians, and often chooses to deal with confronting topics. He is happy with the choices he has made in his art career, and the apparent ease of life in his comfortable seaside studio belies the “collateral damage” that painting can bring to a life devoted to art.

Your subject matter is very New South Wales South Coast, with the dark hills, Norfolk pines and dark coastal landscape. Do you see yourself as a localised painter or are you more universal in your approach?
It’s a marriage of both, really. Interestingly, the landscape I paint is very much of this area … these dark mountains, this lush green rainforest, and very dramatic skies and violent seas.

I was born in New Zealand and adopted by a loving family. My dad was a university lecturer. He often got sabbatical leave, and we would [go and] live in another country – so I went to school in England, Australia, America and New Zealand. I came here at the age of eight and my formative years were forged in Wollongong.

I don’t see myself as a painter of the desert – and I have been out to the desert, and love it. But I have felt it would be wrong of me to paint it, for I feel like an interloper because it’s not my country and I haven’t lived there. I can understand how some artists can go out there and make it their own, but I personally would feel like a fraud. I think I’m now married to this particular local landscape and it would feel like I had a mistress if I went outback. I’d have to sneak away quietly and then have a cold shower … “It’s okay, Darling. I’m just going out to have a little look outback!”

Is the landscape very important to your figurative work? You obviously enjoy changing your subject matter.
I have a number of areas that interest me deeply, and one of them is my deep relationship to this place where I live. This may sound strange to some people but I consider myself indigenous to this area even though I’m not an Aboriginal person. Now, I know that’s a controversial statement, but, in fact, I think all of us are actually indigenous to planet Earth – and this is the bit of the planet that I grew up in and became deeply attached to. It’s a different attachment to [that of] Aboriginal Australians, who have a much longer history in this area. I personally feel spiritually, physically, artistically attached to this place as much as is emotionally and spiritually possible. Everybody has a right to their own history. I know that will be controversial to some people, and in no way is me saying that meant to belittle other people’s attachment to country. But this is also my relationship to the place, and I think that’s something that I feel needs to be said – nothing to do with political correctness.

Is narrative important to what you do, what you set out to get across?
It is. As a people, all Australians are still trying to work out who we are, and it comes back to identity. It’s a massive issue. [Since] the British came here and decided to colonise this country – which, of course, changed everything – we are still trying to work through all the damage that was done to the indigenous people because of that massive moment in time. So, I think it’s hugely important in terms of me understanding who I am here, who we are here, and who indigenous people are here, and how we all somehow fit together and go forward.

Interestingly, I’m also an immigrant. I came from New Zealand in the early 70s, when Australia was Holdens, kangaroos and meat pies – and it wasn’t particularly embracing. I copped racism, but I grew up later realising that what I got was nothing compared to what the Italians, Greeks, Asians and Aboriginals got. Here I was, a middle-class white kid who sounded a bit different, trying to avoid being beat up because I was a Kiwi. But it was nothing to what many others experienced and that has truly informed who I am today, and the way I paint about Australia. Perhaps, in many ways, I’m fighting back from the pain of those early years. We are lucky as artists that we have an outlet to express our deeper feelings and emotions.

What role do you think the artist has in today’s changing society to tell those stories? Are people listening as much to artists anymore?
I like to see artists going out on a limb doing difficult work. You don’t see as much of it. The art dealers hate it. They don’t want any controversy. They have a lot of wealthy clients and they often want to put up pretty pictures and keep the clients happy. But some of the best art today is challenging.

I like Tony Albert. He is an amazing artist. A gay indigenous man, he is speaking from a marginalised place, and he talks about that through his art. He is dealing with important issues. So, I’m like the suburban middle-aged white guy doing the same sort of stuff, coming from the complete opposite direction. Interestingly, I feel my voice is not that well listened to in the art world.

Is that battle for your ideas to be heard what drives your art? Is it hard to maintain the fight?
Not at all. I did an exhibition at Wollongong Art Gallery, No Country for Dreaming, in 2010. It was about my relationship with Australia and the colonisation that was done to the indigenous people based in this area of Thirroul. There wasn’t much written down about settlement or the local people in this area. There was this great void. I could come in as an artist and interpret stories.

The show got a lot of attention, and from the local indigenous community there were two very polarised views of it. One side had the show shut down for a day and threatened to destroy the works. I ended up having a meeting with the local indigenous community, which was quite eye-opening. They said it was not my right to come in and do paintings about their stories and their history. I basically explained that I was actually painting about our shared stories here. They told me I should have got their permission. I said one of the reasons I became an artist was because I don’t want anyone’s permission. I would like total freedom in my art. In the end we had to agree to disagree.

I believe it is totally my right to make this work. I fully understand how I was viewed, that any utterance coming from a white middle-class perspective can seem like another kick, but I am attempting to comment on colonisation. In literature, you can use harsh words to describe massacres, and because it’s in a book on a shelf it seems less threatening as opposed to visual stuff, which is in your face on a wall. After the show, there was total silence. No one touched it – no interest beyond that. Maybe it’s just too difficult. After that I did self-censor my work, to be honest, for a long time. I had to reassess. You learn and grow. And if I hurt anyone in that experience, that was not my intention. I did learn that the loud young man in me needs to lower his tone a bit.

Making art can be harsh. There have been times when I’ve found it a very painful place – a difficult place – to work. You get knocked down, pick yourself up and dig in the angst like compost.

There is a rawness to the way you apply paint. Is that seductiveness of mark important to creating a successful image?
People are drawn into that rich, buttery paint, but it’s a lot harder to do than people think. It can very easily get out of control and turn into a big mess. Just learning the subtleties, the way your wrist might move or semi-mix the paint on the palette before it gets to the canvas … you are learning all the time … little intricacies that become part of your massive store over 30 years of painting that you can draw from. On a good day, it comes out and makes something really special. It’s a tightrope walk, and there are so many chances to fall off as you’re doing it.

The hardest part for all painters is to keep that process steady when it starts to go bad – your emotions slide with it when it’s going bad. I work really hard to not let that happen – to bring it back, stop for a minute. I get a general idea for an image in my head. Then once the sketch is done, you have a framework where you can let loose a little bit. When you are working with expensive linen and paint, you want to do your research beforehand. But that’s the crazy gamble – the amount of paint that I waste that is just wiped off on rags is amazing, but you have to stop worrying about that. It’s just collateral damage.

It’s all an amazing balance between raw attack and a measured approach. It’s about chaos and order somehow coming together.

You collaborate regularly with musicians other artists and also paint over found objects, such as in your Noah Taylor series. There’s a real experimental quality to your working methods.
If I’m doing the same thing over and over, sure I work towards a body of work, but I need to find something else that’s new and interesting to me. So after a couple of years of painting solely on white backgrounds, I went to the junk shop and found stuff to paint on. The Noah Taylors were meant to be studies but after they were done I thought “that’s it, this is my Archibald entry”. There is so much opportunity for serendipity to happen in these playful works, to do a completely different painting over another image and things occur that wouldn’t have if you were painting it yourself. It’s a brilliant way of exploring new ideas. I don’t know what I’m going to be painting in two weeks’ time. It’s all up in the air. That level of not knowing is something I need, it’s so sad when you see artists who have struck success with one thing and cannot get away from it. I don’t want to be that artist.


Courtesy the artist, Olsen Irwin Gallery, Sydney and Wollongong Art Gallery

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