Review: Fresh Hell

Words by Nix Herriot

Rich with symbolism, violence and vivid colour, the paintings of Marri Ngarr artist Ryan Presley grapple with contemporary Indigenous oppression. In Fresh Hell, the first major solo exhibition of his work, Presley interrogates how corporate, religious and state power is enforced in Australia, while celebrating the heroism and resistance of Aboriginal communities.

Entering the gallery at Adelaide Contemporary Experimental, my eyes are immediately drawn to the first of Presley’s large-scale oil paintings. In Crown Land (till the ends of the earth) (2020), a female Indigenous figure bestrides a horse. Caught in a canyon, she brandishes a machete, poised ready to slay the grotesque dragon that occupies her land. Above her, on the precipice, tower the sinister urban skyscrapers of high finance and the former World Trade Centre.

Ryan Presley, Crown Land (till the ends of the earth) (2020). Oil, synthetic polymer paint and 23ct gold leaf on canvas. 183.2 x 152.6 cm. National Gallery of Victoria.

What gives such artworks their power? It is not merely the dramatic depictions of brutality and resistance, but Presley’s conscious strategy of subversion. These are not the Desert paintings fetishised by the white art market and which adorn the foyers of Australia’s mining giants. Instead, Presley presents clear and uncomfortably political images in which he appropriates and manipulates aspects of Western visual culture in order to question it.

In his Blood Money (2010–18) series of richly-layered watercolours, Presley reimagines the figureheads on Australian banknotes. Replacing Queen Elizabeth, notable settlers, scientists and other icons of white Australia, Blood Money features the warriors of Indigenous history, including Pemulwuy, Dundalli and Oodgeroo Noonuccal. It performs a multi-faceted act of resistance: at once staking a claim against historical erasure by demanding a long overdue acknowledgement of Aboriginal people, while also calling into question the very origins of wealth in a nation founded, to borrow Marx, upon extirpation, enslavement and entombment.

Raised Catholic and baptised in Alice Springs, Presley draws upon familiar Western religious traditions. The simple but striking, two-dimensional yet theatrical quality of religious iconography is present throughout Presley’s practice. In Fresh Hell, the exhibition space echoes the architectural forms of cathedrals and labyrinths as the viewer is guided through a series of archways and chambers. Luminous with gold leaf, many scenes are inspired by images of saints, prophets, martyrs and Biblical figures. Into these roles, however, young Aboriginal people are cast as protagonists.

Crown Land revisits the narrative of St George and the Dragon and transposes it onto contemporary Australia. In Presley’s diegesis, the patriarchal soldier-hero of old is represented as a young Aboriginal woman. Crown Land is typical of Presley’s approach to painting: Western mythologies, often entwined with myths of colonisation and conquest, form a kind of symbolic template for him to commandeer. “I used Christian iconography as a base,” Presley explains in an interview with Art Guide Australia, “morphing elements of that canon to comment on our own political and social situations over the past decade”.

Indeed, Presley’s tableaux are grounded not only in a reworking of tradition but in a consideration of twenty-first century Aboriginal oppression. Aboriginal people are imprisoned at the highest rate of any people in the world. Ever since colonisation, Presley reminds us, no police officer has been punished for seriously harming or killing an Aboriginal person. These ‘fresh hells’ of Australian capitalism infect Presley’s vast painted landscapes. Fortified mansions, prisons, American military bases, B-1 bombers, decaying urban infrastructure and the ruins of nuclear testing facilities — the desert is marred by symbols of racism, exploitation and imperialism.

Of particular concern are the policies of the Northern Territory ‘Intervention’ — the regime of racist discipline imposed on Aboriginal communities by the Howard government in 2007. Presley grew up as a teenager during this time and witnessed the Intervention’s discriminatory policing policies. Crown Land and other works illustrate the ongoing pressures of Intervention-era laws and the bonds between economic control, industry and Indigenous oppression.

By pushing communities off their land, the Intervention facilitated the entry of profit-hungry mining companies into Aboriginal land. Fitted with an apparatus used to geolocate underground minerals, the helicopter in Presley’s Aeronautics (what goes up must come down) (2020) references the actions of mining corporations prior to the rollout of the Intervention. The terrifying, multi-headed dragon in Crown Land is replete with similar signifiers of the (in)justice system and coal seam gas exploration tools. Wearing a judge’s wig and spitting fracking burnoff, it is a perfect chimera of Australian racism and extractivism.

For Presley, global and local injustices are imbricated in a matrix of oppression. The prison in The Dunes (how good is Australia) (2019) is styled on both Don Dale and Abu Ghraib — two sites of state violence at which spithoods, teargas and other instruments of torture were inflicted on non-white inmates. In Crown Land, the unmistakable presence of the World Trade Centre attacks marks what Presley views as the start of a decade of occupations and interventions, from Northern Australia to the Middle East.

Ryan Presley, The Dunes (how good is Australia) (2019). Oil and gold leaf on Hoop pine panel. 53.5 x 100 cm.

At a time when demands for justice are caught between systemic change and token symbolism, Presley’s exhibition is prescient. His style of radicalism seems discontent to compromise for mere reforms or recognition. In Fresh Hell, one detects an appetite for revenge against white authority and the structures of power that continue to perpetuate colonial violence.

Young Aboriginal men cheer on dingoes as they hunt down racist judges. Aboriginal women confront terrified white policemen with stun guns of their own. Captain Cook’s HMB Endeavour itself is engulfed in flames. This harbinger of invasion is set alight by a black kite. Carrying a flickering eucalypt branch in its beak, perhaps this bird is Presley’s decolonial answer to the white dove of legend. For Presley, heroism belongs not to men like Cook but to the survivors of his legacy. It is the strength, resistance and everyday heroism of those who continue to struggle who are truly befitting of the title.

In Fresh Hell, we bear witness to a much-needed reckoning with the ongoing oppression of Aboriginal people and their communities. Presley, like many others raging against the system, are targeting the injustices that Australia is yet to fully confront.

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Adelaide University student magazine since 1932. Edited by Grace Atta, Jenny Jung & Chanel Trezise. Get in touch: onditmag@gmail.com