Paul Ryan knows how to move paint around. He can make a surface glossy or sculptural; as inviting as a lolly shop or scary as an Ozploitation horror movie. Sometimes both at once.
Ryan’s skill with paint, and his interest in art historical subjects, can mislead the unsuspecting viewer. We see a recognisable landscape, familiar figures, and feel that we know where we are. It can take a moment or two to realise that the man who stands boldly covering half the canvas has no head, or that the woman in the frothy pink and white Scarlet O’Hara dress seems to hover somehow, strangely flat, out of place in the scene that she obscures.
The effect of the scale and placement of these figures is intentionally unsettling. There is the pure pleasure in painting dress uniforms and extravagant crinolines, but the visual appeal of the figures and the landscape they occupy won't sit easily with the attentive viewer. Ryan makes the painterly equivalent of a double exposure, laying one image on top of another.
The more traditional point of view taken by a landscape painter is that of the landowner, looking out at a prospect of parklands, fields and forests. In Ryan’s paintings, this position of surveying the landscape belongs to the figure in the painting. He stands above us, his height emphasised by the gleaming verticals of white calves and thighs. The viewer is positioned, Lilliputian, in the foreground of the painting itself.
Paul Ryan’s eye and hand make utterly contemporary paintings, images that can only be made by someone with a fluency in the contemporary visual languages of film and digital media. We know that the figures in these images are visitors from the past, but they come to us, not from real events, but from other images of and from history. In the diptych ‘Cook and Hounds’, two versions of the subject are placed side by side, not-quite mirroring one another. Both are in blue and white and gold, both have an arm outstretched. Ryan gives us two versions of James Cook as he was painted in ‘Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay 1770’ by E. Phillips Fox. The pose is probably uncharacteristic of the real James Cook. In portraits and in contemporary accounts of his character he was described as a practical and down to earth man, not someone taken to waving empty arms in dramatic gestures. But Paul Ryan isn’t painting history, he’s painting the history of art.
One version of Ryan’s Cook looks forbidding, his face shadowed with the same grey as the ominous clouds in the sky behind him. The other looks youthful, nervous, his pink and white face framed by two buttery coils of hair. Ryan has placed two versions of the same painting side by side, in a visual reference to techniques of montage used in film, or even the invitation to ‘swipe left’ to see another image in an Instagram post. The two versions of Cook seem to stand guard, rather than survey. Stop, they seem to say, as though Cook has had second thoughts and decided to protect the land from what will come after this moment of arrival.
We keep trying to see the vistas Ryan offers us, but even in those paintings that look at first like straightforward views of distant headlands there's that abrupt, flattened foreground, the sense that there's a sheer drop between us and the sight we are here to see. Watch your step.