Robert Ryan

Moving Backwards

October 27 - November 10 2018

Robert Ryan has always immersed himself in the process of life, his paintings interpreting and distilling experience. His new body of work documents recent wayfaring through landscapes of place, time and consciousness. Although embodying two distinct painting styles, the underlying theme remains the individual's relationship to one's surroundings and situation. Ryan explains that the show's title, Moving Backwards, refers not to any sense of reversion or a hankering for bygone circumstances, but the convoluting aspects encountered in relocating home and studio to a faraway region of ancestral significance.

Two large oil paintings emblazoned with a myriad of intricately patterned motifs and tiny vignettes manifest the artist's stories of transition. Their labyrinthine complexity summons close inspection. Alcorn Street presents as a farewell tribute to the place Ryan has called home for 25 years. It is an extraordinary work wherein each segment pertains to some aspect of the Byron Bay lifestyle and the changes he has witnessed there over the decades. The foreground is the ocean in which stylized figures cavort amidst the waves. Above the sandy shore are sightseers enjoying the view from a platform, one taking the mandatory ‘selfie'. Ladder-like stairs lead up to the carpark at the northern end of Alcorn Street. Patient dogs are omnipresent. With its balmy climate, picturesque setting and the media coverage concerning the influx of certain noted celebrities, the Byron shire is increasingly becoming a ‘branded' mecca for both Aussie and international tourists. The consequences of such are evidenced by what is going on in the houses. Enticed by the lucrative benefits of providing holiday accommodation, a great many locals have temporarily vacated their ‘absolute beachfront' properties, storing belongings in the attic and converting garages into granny flats. Elsewhere, people are just getting on with their everyday routines: mowing the lawn, chatting over the fence, watching television, pushing a pram or skateboarding down the street. This is a picture of essentially fond recollections, but now new horizons beckon.

The Open Road canvas narrates in minutiae the experiences of the three-day car journey from Byron to Melbourne where Ryan eventually boards The Spirit of Tasmania that will ferry him across the waters to an entirely different habitat. A dense flock of birds fills the sky signalling the impending venture into alternative realms. Curvilinear, looping scrawls convey the attendant mixed emotions. Horizontal bands demarcate the roads along which the little car travels southward through an immensity of ever-changing vistas. Green pastures and fruit orchards transpose into drought-stricken regions. Kangaroos bound across a colourless arid landscape. In musing about how moving his life to another place was ‘big', Ryan jestingly notes that there are a lot of big things to be seen during a road trip in Australia: a big banana, pineapple, chicken, lawn mower. These ‘monuments' are all discernible in the work, plus one of his own imagining - a big lampshade! Perhaps it referenced the anticipation of an overnight stop at a roadside motel? The incongruous figure groupings along the way denote the memories that surface in those moments when scenic monotony and tyranny of distance induce a contemplative disposition. As the epic journey nears completion, trees and paddocks dwindle into suburbia and thence the city teeming with people quite oblivious to the dust-coated car passing by on its way to Port Melbourne.

Quite the antithesis of those intricate, tapestry-like works is a series of small oils on board painted en plein air. With swiftly executed brushwork, they express Ryan's ‘first impressions' of his new environment - the small township of Scamander on Tasmania's northeast coast. Situated at the mouth of a river, bordered by wide sandy beaches and circled by ancient forests, it is a place of natural beauty. Ryan's ancestor, Owen Ryan, was transported as a convict to Hobart in 1843 and following his release nine years later, he settled in Scamander. The house he built still stands and a little river bend carries the Ryan name. Four succeeding generations have lived in the area. The artist himself was born and grew up in South Australia but during school holidays often visited his grandfather there. As a mainlander up until now, Ryan says that Scamander thus seems ‘familiar but unfamiliar'. His translocation from the tropical vibrancy of Northern NSW into a comparatively remote region suffused with historical import may be thought of as a ‘moving backwards' through the portals of space and time. The resultant works resonate a visual potency that pays homage to the maxim that an artist must always bare witness to his own experience.


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