Exhibition review: Fresh Hell

Ryan Presley's first solo show explores notions of power, race and colonialism.

Brisbane-based Marri Ngarr artist Ryan Presley’s first major solo exhibition, Fresh Hell, brings together a body of work eight years in the making. Presley rose to prominence when his 2010 watercolour series (and later interactive installation), Blood Money received significant media coverage, sparking conversations around the relationship between colonialism and capital.

In Fresh Hell, he turns his attention to the impact of physical and cultural violence on Aboriginal communities in Australia, drawing on – and subverting – Western religious iconography in a series of large-scale oil paintings. 

In pieces glowing with gold-leaf skies and vivid red earth, scenes inspired by familiar images of saints, Old Testament prophets, and Biblical figures unfold. Presley’s protagonists are all young Aboriginal men and women.

St Michael – the Archangel of the Apocalypse – becomes a young man commanding a pack of dingoes. A woman escaping mounted police in an airborne red Brumby recalls the story of the prophet Elijah and his fiery chariot. A young mother standing resolutely above a trio of cowering policemen is reminiscent of the transfigured Christ. Each of these radiant central figures is haloed in a wreath of flames. 

These paintings, instantly eye-catching with their bold colours and Biblical splendour, also contain layers of meaning in their smaller background details, many of which speak to the systematic injustice and brutality Aboriginal Australians continue to face.

Beneath the flying car in The Dunes (How good is Australia), newly dug graves are marked with judges’ gavels: the endorsement of the law. A young man battling a Leviathan-like shark in A day at the beach (Get off my wave) hooks the creature through the mouth with what turns out to be, on close inspection, a pair of handcuffs. 

Alongside the larger paintings, a series of pencil drawings are also on display. These pieces, which take elements from the paintings for closer study (such as a Taser, a dingo, or a set of number plates), highlight the intention and thought Presley has put into every detail. 

Artistic Director Patrice Sharkey, and her team at ACE, consistently excel at adapting their gallery space in ways that best showcase each artist’s work, influencing how an audience interacts with the exhibition.

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Presley has spoken about being inspired by the experience of seeing art in ancient cities, where winding paths and hidden chambers enhance the thrill of crossing a threshold and suddenly stumbling upon a masterpiece. For Fresh Hell, ACE have worked with Presley to create a similar effect, dividing the space into a series of smaller rooms accessed via arched doorways. 

Striking in both its grandeur and its thoughtful detail, Fresh Hell is sure to leave a lasting impression.

Fresh Hell: Ryan Presley
Adelaide Contemporary Experimental

Fresh Hell will be exhibited until 29 October 2022.

Megan Koch is a writer and bookseller based in Adelaide. She studied English and Applied Linguistics at Flinders University.