The heroes of Ryan Presley’s latest paintings are often young Aboriginal women and men, casually dressed in trainers, tees and jeans. Off the canvas, they and their peers might be disproportionately policed, detained and vilified – but in Presley’s work they stand triumphant, heads wreathed in golden flames like avenging saints, standing tall over the instruments of state and colony.
In One Day This Will All Be Yours (2022), a young mother holding a baby points a stun gun at three white policemen, composed in a way that recalls the symmetry of Renaissance depictions of the Transfiguration of Jesus. In Crown Land (Till the Ends of the Earth) (2020) another woman channels Saint George and the Dragon as she sits astride a magnificent horse, wielding a machete against a chimera with the heads of a snake, paws of a lion, and a judge’s wig.
With their vibrant colours and liberal use of gold leaf, Presley’s paintings are playful, sobering, and oddly familiar – modern revenge fantasies built over a rich, complicated scaffold of iconography and narrative.
“I’m looking at the idea of value, and what’s cherished,” Presley says. The Brisbane-based Marri Ngarr artist’s solo exhibition Fresh Hell opened this week at Adelaide Contemporary Experimental, and will tour to Gertrude Contemporary in Melbourne in early 2023. “That’s what I find so interesting about all these characters within the canon of Christian works – they all have little themes and stories that are attributed to them.”
Take Saint George, for instance. “[He’s seen as] a saviour, a liberator – a foreign soldier going over to a Middle Eastern village, liberating it from a dragon,” Presley says – but the story can also double as an early colonial fantasy, where religion and conquest go hand in glove. “[He] threatens not to kill it unless they convert, and then takes possession of the town. That trope, it exists time and again – Saint George was the patron saint of the Crusades, and remains the patron saint of England.”
Presley has form for subverting the familiar. In 2019 his Blood Money project took on the nation-building iconography of Australian currency to show the “flip side of the coin” of colonisation. On his version of the $10, $20, $50 and $100 notes, the likes of Banjo Paterson and convict Mary Reibey were swapped out for frontier war heroes and activists such as Vincent Lingiari, Pemulwuy, and Oodgeroo Noonuccal.
While researching that project, he started thinking about how the human mind responds to the sight of money. “It’s something I feel instinctively – like when you see a $50 note on the ground,” he says. “I wanted to use that idea of people’s positive response to visual images, and load them up with ideas and visual histories that are … less popular.”
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In Fresh Hell, which features work created between 2019 and 2021, Presley applies a similar trick to Christianity, hijacking a familiar visual language that has penetrated the art and storytelling of the west – and the places it has colonised. These saints, martyrs and parables have been copied and repeated over and over across centuries and artistic traditions, eventually finding their way to Alice Springs in the 1990s where Presley attended Catholic Sunday mass with his grandmother.
“These images were produced in different styles of the time,” he says, of the schools of artists that would create these scenes en masse throughout the middle ages. “[They] would churn them out throughout Europe, little compact boards that missionaries could take around and convert people who couldn’t read.”
In Presley’s hands they become the foundation for a set of vivid tableaux that lay bare the 21st-century realities of colonialism in Australia and abroad, peppered with military drones, children’s graves, and crumbling urban architecture. The violence may shock some viewers when police and judges are on the receiving end, but set against a news cycle where deaths in custody and other brutalities are commonplace, that’s the point.
“The real events are shocking, the violence taking place, and I wanted to use that in the works – the delicate nature of life and our existence, and how easily that can be snuffed out.”
By flipping those scenarios, Presley says Fresh Hell explores “the daytime horrors that exist in our reality, our times”. The woman with the stun gun draws on a story close to home, when a Logan woman was blinded in one eye by a police stun gun in 2014.
“How can you have faith in that system? What hope is there for the kids that are coming through, to be treated with any respect, diligence? The hellishness, that’s the living hell. I don’t believe in a hell or a heaven, but it’s the mindset, it’s the ideology, it’s how we treat other people.”
But while there is agony and grief, there is also defiance and humour. In The Dunes (How Good Is Australia) (2021) Presley riffs on the Old Testament prophet Elijah, who rode up to heaven on a flaming chariot towed by red horses. Presley turns it into a high-octane chase, its hero escaping the outstretched arm of a mounted police officer and a detention facility modelled on Don Dale and Abu Ghraib.
As she drives into the sky in a flying red convertible, complete with “BLK PWR” number plate, she looks over her shoulder and casually raises two fingers. But she isn’t looking at her pursuer – she’s looking at us.
Ryan Presley’s Fresh Hell is open at Adelaide Contemporary Experimental, and will tour to Gertrude Contemporary in Melbourne early 2023