Ryan Presley

Art, Ryan Presley’s work suggests, should be a bridge between institutional and vernacular culture, as if each would become shallow without the other.

Ryan Presley’s work is full of symbolism, but I also like to think of it as testing the line between iconography and insignia, directing viewers to consider rank and responsibility, status and standing. Presley, who has both Aboriginal and Scandinavian ancestry, is fascinated by official/unofficial roles and jurisdictions, creating works of a predominantly illustrative bent that hinge on their capacity to be decoded. His particular penchant is for standalone objects – uniforms, banknotes, tasers, welfare cards, gavels, detention centres, boats, CCTV systems, graffiti tags, mining equipment – which are used to thematise situations of postcolonial sovereignty, or lack thereof. Like many Aboriginal-identified artists who have at one time been inspired by Gordon Bennett, the question of power – actual, symbolic, and imagined – pervades everything he does.  

When I caught up with Presley at his Yeronga studio, in Brisbane’s inner south, preliminary sketches for his exhibition, Inferno, held at Milani Gallery in July, were still taped to the walls. As with his 2017 exhibition, Terror Island (Wish You Were Here), at Brisbane’s Boxcopy Contemporary Art Space, his latest exhibition could be read, convincingly, as another attempt to get out of the shadow of his hugely successful series, Blood Money, 2010–ongoing, which he began at the age of twenty-three. Religion, rather than the economy, has in recent years become for Presley both a central inspiration and a bugbear, turning to Byzantine codes to capture something of the sacral and retributive air driving matters of Aboriginal social justice. 

But back to Blood Money, which has to be one of the most iconic bodies of work produced in Australia over the last decade. For those out of the loop, the series consists of large, detailed watercolour versions of Australian banknotes that Presley has re-designed to depict leaders from Aboriginal history, reminding us that the “invisible hand” of the market now also refers to those “hidden” subjugated peoples that colonialist capitalism depended on. Presley’s historical figures are offered as alternatives to those on existing Australian banknotes, many of whom could be regarded as beneficiaries of colonisation. An exception, of course, is Ngarrindjeri author and inventor David Unaipon (on the $50 note), whom Presley substitutes for Whadjuk Noongar activist Fanny Balbuk. 

Since completing a practice-led doctoral project at Griffith University in 2016 – about the imbrication of monetary systems in religion, culture, and law, going all the way back to antiquity – Presley began pairing the Blood Money watercolour works with Blood Money Currency Exchange Terminal, 2016-ongoing, an ersatz currency exchange booth in which a performing teller can exchange your AUD for BMD (Blood Money Dollars), but always at a loss. Staged at the TarraWarra Museum of Art in 2016 and refined for the 2019 Primavera exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA), Sydney, the piece is surprisingly redolent of relational and social-practice art (Plamen Dejanov and even Stuart Ringholt come to mind), offering the artist respite, perhaps, from his usually intensive pictorial labours. 

The MCA piece capped off an almost ten-year project for Presley that explicitly linked racial identity with commodification, riffing on the theme of indebtedness: the real debts born from colonialism, but also contemporary (white) guilt. Before Richard Bell’s Pay the Rent, 2022, hit the world stage at documenta fifteen – a work that consists of an endlessly changing LED sign calculating the debt (rent) owed to Aboriginal people since the 1901 Federation – Blood Money could, in retrospect, be about the price of identity politics itself. The project suggests that, while contemporary art can provide the historically dispossessed with symbolic power, icons of inclusivity may also be in high demand simply because they’re good for business. Everybody’s got to make a living, even those whose job it is to point to the system’s exploitative, contradictory mechanics. As Presley told me at Milani Gallery: “People just really like buying paintings of money.”

From September this year, works from Inferno will be on display at Adelaide’s ACE Open, forming part of a new exhibition, Fresh Hell. In keeping with the cheery titles, Presley’s 2022 paintings and drawings – close to what you would call “realistic” but also a bit folky – reflect something of the techno-dystopia of recent times. I’m referring, here, to life post-Covid, but also to what Ben Davis calls “art in the after-culture:” the sense that, in an era of climate catastrophes, everything cultural has been sucked into our phones. Art increasingly looks superseded by bespoke virtual platforms, presentist ideologies, endless identity affirmations and moral feuds, turning all aesthetic experience into dislocated, self-directed appraisals of relevance. The works in Inferno and Fresh Hell don’t reference this situation directly, but their dramatic depiction of individuals and symbols in decorative yet supposedly natural environments do invoke “survivance” – a conjunction of “survival” and “resistance” that was coined by Gerald Vizenor in the 1990s to define a First Nations ontology. Survivance is what Tyson Yunkaporta intimates is the “clean up” position everyone will need to occupy for future existence: “A thousand years of making our land liveable again, and patiently bringing former settlers back under the Law of the land again.”

Created in the months before and after the birth of Presley’s first child, Inferno and Fresh Hell reference a range of Christian icons, particularly Byzantine thematic conventions such as St. Theodore the general, St. Francis receiving the stigmata, and the transfiguration of Jesus. Moving from Alice Springs to Brisbane with his family when he was eleven, Presley grew up in a religious household but claims there was an important anxious moment in his Northern Territory childhood when the Christian symbolism he had become accustomed to was unceremoniously revealed to him by his mother as mere myth. 

The desert palette of his Northern Territory past certainly makes its otherworldly presence felt in works such as THE TRIAL (Live Dogs and Dead Lions), 2021, and THE DUNES (How Good is Australia), 2021, the former work alluding to Franz Kafka’s classic short story written in 1915, known for its guilt-ridden, labyrinthine unreality. These and other works, which include large oil paintings and drawings on paper, redirect the succinct pathos of early Byzantine messaging towards the authentic credo of “Blak Power,” portraying white policemen and judicial figures in the roles of bureaucratic, foreign, authoritarian chumps. Here, the gold halos of Byzantine art become apparitions behind the heads of Black protagonists, resembling the gaudy flames stencilled on the sides of hot rod cars. 

Viewers don’t tend to be left wondering in front of Presley’s work. While he may not think of his practice as religious per se, it’s hard not to see it as an attempt to glorify and inspire, conveying, at the same time, a clear sense of moral and political duty, particularly where injustice is concerned. Although verging on displacement, Presley’s symbols rarely look like they’re about to poetically float free. Instead, his highly codified works, mixing iconography and insignia, are alluring only insofar as, once they have our attention, they might then get us thinking about their inculcation in actual systems, laws, and conventions.   

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 60, 2022. 
Images courtesy the artist, Adelaide Contemporary Experimental (ACE), Adelaide, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, Artspace, Sydney, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, Milani Gallery, Brisbane, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, UNSW Galleries, Sydney, and Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, Netherlands.

Fresh Hell
11 February – 26 March 2023
Gertrude Contemporary, Melbourne

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