Robert Ryan

‘I found an old box of paint,’ the title of Ryan’s current show with Anthea Polson Art on Queensland’s Gold Coast, has both anecdotal and more broadly conceptual meanings.

The box of paints in question was found by Ryan while moving out of the print studio at Barebones Gallery in Bangalow. As such, it is an object reminder of a period in the artist’s life when he was on the move from Queensland to north-east Tasmania, where he now resides. This title also gestures, though, to a re-ignition of colour in Ryan’s work, and to a robust mood of hopefulness and celebration which permeates his human and more-than-human worlds. 

These paintings are notably flattened in perspective, with stretches of vines, branches, fences and limbs covering the picture grounds in rhizomatic formations. An intense simultaneity – the sense that all of the image is happening here and at once – pushes against the narrative gestures that many of the figures who populate these pictures take up. In this physical and imaginative environment, we become immersed totally within the world which at once plays out before us and seems to encapsulate us, positioning the viewer somewhere in the decentralised spatial logic of the images.

Many of these paintings respond to, and obliquely depict, Ryan’s anecdotal experience both in Tasmania and abroad. Blue Bird, 2021, for example, responds to an exchange Ryan had with a stranger in a Dublin pub. After chatting to this man, who then left, Ryan was approached by a third party who commented that the man was ‘a dreamer, and if one looked closely you could see the blue birds fluttering around his head.’ With this story in mind, the patterning on either side of the painting’s dividing red line – perhaps denoting a fence, physical or mental – takes on a new meaning. Where one side is lush, almost prelapsarian and overflowing, the side closer to the human figure is ordered, pared-back, and rational. Quite which side – imaginative or ‘grounded’ and methodical – the figure is committing to is left an open question, a bluebird flying out of his grasp, to some destination unknown. 

Other pieces tell of personal histories closer to home, such as Abandoned Chickens, 2021. Spliced deftly within the layers of fine linework in this image can be seen a human figure and a group of birds: a gesture to the flock of roosters released into a reserve nearby Ryan’s residence, which he regularly wends his way through to feed and tend to. Elsewhere, the collaborative work made with Graham Derbyshire, Hilux, 2021, pays homage to Ryan’s trusted ute, and the twenty-one years of loyal service it has given him. 

This show represents both renewal and reinvigoration for Ryan, in terms of colour and vibrancy, as well as a nod to the many forms that his practice has already taken. Especially, the dense and repeated patterns and the flatness of scope are reminiscent of the printmaking practice which he has long been connected to, and in which he took training in Italy in the 1990s. The show is on view at Anthea Polson until 18 September. 

I found an old box of paint
28 August – 18 September 2021
Anthea Polson Art, Qld

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