Q&A with Ryan Presley

Fresh Hell is a major work that you have been steadily working on over the past years. How are you feeling?

I’m feeling good. I have been working on Fresh Hell in the last two and a bit years, but it is based on work I was doing the past decade or so with my PHD research. So Fresh Hell is the biggest compilation of work and show I have ever done, 'the cream of the crop' (laughs). And having the space custom built for the works is very special to me.

It is hard to get a grip of it; it is funny that it is all my work in there; it is still sinking in. I was aiming to show the work in 2021, and then with the pandemic, it just entered this space where it felt less real that it was going to happen – not that I doubted it would, it just changed the feeling of it. So it is amazing to see Fresh Hell come up better than I imagined it would.

Local audiences will be familiar with your Blood Money series, presented at the Art Gallery of South Australia in 2019 as part of Tarnanthi. How is Fresh Hell different or similar to Blood Money

Fresh Hell is similar to Blood Money in the layering approach to making the work, to the mix of patternation and figurative elements of the bank notes. I like bank notes because there is that element of composition, and people really working on the layout: weaving in different patterns, symbols and meanings to the portraits; telling people's lives and stories; counterfeiting measures, all that sort of thing. 

So [Fresh Hell] is similar, because I have paid a lot of attention to the layout of the works; and putting a lot of time into setting things out; how things work together within individual works, the figurative elements, the pattern combinations and abstract elements. Then there is the conceptual ideas like power, religion and financial histories [which] are enmeshed. 

We are excited to don your Fresh Hell merch made in collaboration with SickNasty. This merch features a cartoon devil motif. Could you explain the significance of this character? 

In 2014 I did a small version of [the devil] where I wanted to put in graffiti, a billboard or some sort of signage. However it didn't work with the image, with how I set it out. So [the devil] was always in the back of my mind. I wanted to rework the image and make it the basis for the ‘One day this will all be yours’ (2022) work. I thought this is a good opportunity to change all the buildings and background, and make it so it could accommodate that graffiti element.

[In One day this will all be yours] I wanted to infuse those ideas of Dante's inferno and the different layers of hell. [Specifically the layer for] babies [where] they go to the first layer of hell, like limbo, [and] the connotations and meanings of limbo of being on the precipice of something terrible, awaiting without any defined end, like endless waiting. I wanted to put limbo as the graffiti and the devil head in as well to work in with those themes. But [I wanted the devil] to be cartoonish and funny and a sort of friendly-ish look to it.

[The devil character addresses] police violence and the violence of the judicial system. The detention of children who are 10 years old. Adult prisons. Publicly broadcasted events where obviously police have been in the wrong. [Police who] are not assessed under the same conditions, or are not receiving the same treatment in that system, had someone done that violence to them, so that lack of equality. How that ties to racism, historical racism, contemporary racism. Globally but specifically in Australia and how that ties into whiteness theory, and that whiteness is a mind-state. So [the devil character] is related to all those concepts. Which is why it is a white devil. And just because it is a stupid, off the record, slur, I wanted to make a joke about. But [it is] more towards the more serious stuff.

What are you watching, listening to, reading at the moment? 

I’m not reading much at the moment (laughs). The last thing I read was Kafka’s The Trial, which is related to the works in Fresh Hell, [specifically] THE TRIAL (Live Dogs and Dead Lions) (2022) which has the same name.

I am listening to... (Ryan proceeds to show us his Spotify, you can listen to his playlist here) I really love a band calledTurn Style, punk rock from America. Really good, I recommend that, they released an album in 2020 called Glow On. Bluey album (laughs). Old George Harrison I listen to, old Pixies albums, Nova Twins, Badbrains.


Can you describe your studio space? What does a day in the studio look like for you?

I am working out of two studios at the moment because of the floods in Brisbane. It affected the studio I have been mainly at for the last five years...so I moved [my studio] home [where I] luckily [have] a utility-like-room that I could squeeze into and work into.

I have been mostly working at home since March. A fair chunk of time. Which is tricky. When I have to get to the bottom of a painting and work on different sections, I have to tightrope walk them out around the back of the house and prop them up outside - all out in the elements and there are bees and fruit flies trying to get into the paint. They stick in, there’s a few painted in there (laughs). 

I get in at about 9 o'clock and just blast music, I would play music really loud all day in the industrial space, that is something I really enjoy doing, all the works were done to a sort of soundtrack. And then I just have lunch and work through the whole day unless I am designing a new work and then I am just researching about different topics, and go down sort of tangents with that. I finish at about 6 or 7. 

What’s up next for you and your practice once Fresh Hell opens?

I will just be tinkering with a few ideas. Preparing for the Gertrude Melbourne version of Fresh Hell in February. Then I have Blood Money exchange, the booth where people can exchange and buy Blood Money dollars, happening in Brisbane in December, that will be up for the longest period it has been up, for 3 months. That is about it. Yes, I would rather have a slower pace now, because I have been working full tilt for the last year. 

Ryan's Fresh Hell soundtrack: listen here.

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ACE respectfully acknowledges the traditional Country of the Kaurna people of the Adelaide Plains and pays respect to Elders past and present. We recognise and respect their cultural heritage, beliefs and relationship with the land. We acknowledge that they are of continuing importance to the Kaurna people living today.