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The Subversive Icons of Ryan Presley

Installation view of Ryan Presley, 'Fresh Hell' at Gertrude Contemporary, 2023. Photo: Christian Capurro.

Ryan Presley’s paintings are critical reflections on the power structures that adversely impact Aboriginal people in Australia.

By Andrea Bubenik

In a world saturated with images, acts of physical violence are readily available for consumption, while the entrenched systems of control and dominion that can instigate them are hardly represented at all. In this domain, the painter’s brush can intercede as a caustic tool. Ryan Presley’s paintings are critical reflections on the power structures that adversely impact Aboriginal people in Australia. His combative allegories feature Aboriginal heroes and heroines with a heightened sense of good versus evil. Physical altercations loom large, but the astute viewer will also notice subtle details of colonial oppression. The taser, sword, spear and gun can do great harm, but so too can the judge’s gavel.

Installation view of Ryan Presley, 'Fresh Hell' at Gertrude Contemporary, 2023. Photo: Christian Capurro.

Many artists have addressed and redressed the legacies of colonialism in Australia. What is compelling and special about Presley’s work is the emboldened artistic language and symbolic narrative approach that he uses to take up this remit. Presley’s practice is animated by medieval miniatures and Byzantine painting as much as contemporary Aboriginal politics—he wields and subverts religion and myth as potent cross-cultural and atemporal forms. In doing so, he rallies against the frequent dismissal of religious icons as mere curiosities or historical relics, especially in an era of aggressive secularisation for contemporary art. As the American art historian Thomas Crow has observed “The current tendency is to adopt a posture of self-satisfied mourning for all bypassed utopianisms.”i

Presley counters this tendency and is unabashed in his use of overt symbolism in staged scenes of confrontation. There is an allegorical arc to Fresh Hell, in which icons of Christian faith are referenced and subverted for the staging of a new roster of legends. Presley is especially interested in Christian saints, characters whose own histories of violence and strife are appropriate analogues for exploring contemporary themes of power and oppression. Drawing on his own Catholic upbringing, Presley understands that these stories and legends carry a powerful narrative force and a continued (albeit problematic) cultural currency. As noted by Presley himself, images of Christian saints were widely distributed in zones of colonial and missionary activities, including the Northern Territory where he was born.ii

Installation view of Ryan Presley, 'Fresh Hell' at Gertrude Contemporary, 2023. Photo: Christian Capurro.

Saints are fractals of faith. Their identities are anything but stable—they often exist across multiple cultures and religions, and are adapted to diverse motivations and circumstances. Take for example St Theodore, who Presley references in A day at the beach (Get off my wave), 2022. Also known as Theodore “The General”, St Theodore was one of the so-called soldier saints venerated in Catholic, Coptic and Orthodox faiths. Adding to the confusion of tongues is the existence of at least two historical Theodores, who were likely conflated into one figure.iii The proliferation of myths and legends begins in the fourth century and includes Theodore as slayer of monstrous serpents or dragons, mounted warrior who wielded a spear, officer in the Roman army and martyr tortured and executed for his beliefs.

In Presley’s painting, Theodore is freshly reinvented as a young Aboriginal man whose skin is scarred from conflict. He holds a chain culminating in a set of handcuffs, ensnaring one of three encircling sharks. In his simple aluminium boat, with a burn barrel for incinerating waste, this warrior figure reclaims the sea while in the distance, suburban houses are engulfed by waves. The action is captured with the abstract and schematic linear approach that marks Byzantine icons, the waves carefully demarcated and patterned.

Other paintings by Presley invoke St George, St Francis, St Michael, the prophet Elijah, the Virgin Mary and even Christ, all reinvented as fearless Aboriginal combatants who fight the social injustices that surround them. They face down police brutality, invasive helicopters, corrupt judges, and the impact of mining and corporate policies. The heads of this new roster of heroes and heroines are all framed by flames created with precious 23K gold leaf, as if the artist has radicalised the Christian halo into living fire. In the words of Presley: 

I found the appearance of the typical halo to be quite benign. I wanted to communicate an active, impassioned, empowered state. I wanted to refer directly to fire and flames as fundamental to our cultural processes here on this continent, and the maintenance of the continent. There is also such a breadth of symbolic reading of fire and flames throughout our [Aboriginal people’s] shared history, so I think it works in applying it to our contemporary senses and post-modern readings as well.iv

Installation view of Ryan Presley, 'Fresh Hell' at Gertrude Contemporary, 2023. Photo: Christian Capurro.

Most of the paintings in Fresh Hell also feature high quality gold paint in the sky—yet another nod to Byzantine and Orthodox icons, which often include swaths of gold as indicators of heavenly supernatural realms. In a similar way, medieval devotional images for books were created using gouache and gold leaf. According to Presley:

Gold is one of the components that drew me to use icons as a vehicle to paint about and relating to difficult and unpopular scenarios, experiences and histories. Gold is such a loaded material here and throughout global culture, so I was keen to take the lead of traditional icons, learn about it and adopt it into these works.v

And yet the gold that permeates the skies seems to pale next to the rich red soil of Country. Certainly, this juxtaposition allows for a bold pronouncement on the power of place. Could this be yet another subversion, suggesting that instead of the heavenly realm it is the land itself that can offer emancipation and perhaps even apotheosis? The imagination of a reality yet to be possessed is all thanks to Presley’s powerful narrative drive that subverts the language and forms of Western myths and legends. This theory is reinforced by philosopher Jason Bahbak Mohaghegh who has described fantasy as “wilder imagination to bridge tangible limbs beyond the dominion of the law, the known, and the real”.vi

Installation view of Ryan Presley, 'Fresh Hell' at Gertrude Contemporary, 2023. Photo: Christian Capurro.

Fresh Hell reinvents the symbolism of religion and myth in order to hope for and even demand a better future. All this, despite the uncomfortable truth that hell seems to recur time and again. As Greil Marcus once pronounced of punk rock, with the desire to change the world comes the demand to live, “live not as an object but as a subject of history – to live as if something actually depended on one’s actions.”[vii] In his thoughtful subversions, Presley’s paintings are far from mocking or cynical, which would be an easy route to take. In positioning his newly anointed heroes and heroines in positions of supernatural power, Presley seeks to imagine alternatives and resists the intimation that things simply are as they must be. His attention to known symbols, myths and legends carries another power within: hope. It is the present that seems lacking in the face of Ryan Presley’s subversive icons.

Dr.Andrea Bubenik, Senior Lecturer in Art History, The University of Queensland.

This essay was co-commissioned by Adelaide Contemporary Experimental. 

i Thomas Crow, No Idols: The Missing Theology of Art (Sydney: Power Publications, 2017), 8.

ii Ryan Presley, in discussion with the author, 31 January 2023.

iii Donald Attwater, “Saint Theodore”, in The Penguin Dictionary of Saints (New York: Penguin, 1983), 321.

iv Ryan Presley, in discussion with the author.

v ibid.

vi Jason Bahbak Mohaghegh, Omnicide: Mania, Fatality, and the Future-in-delirium (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2019), 415-416.

vii Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2009, first published 1989), p.5.

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