Thirroul artist Paul Ryan has won a prestigious $30,000 art prize for his portraits of two less-than-convincing bushmen.
The paintings, Wild Colonial Boys, are a continuation of Ryan’s controversial 2010 exhibition No Country for Dreaming and uphold his tendency to pair serious subject matter with ironic titles.
The Geelong contemporary art prize-winning works show European settlers in distinguished military garb ill-suited to the Australian climate.
‘‘We see them dressed in their fine military uniforms, looking self-satisfied,’’ Ryan said.
‘‘The truth is they are totally unprepared for the harsh realities of survival in this strange and unyielding new land... they look like they spend more time in front of a mirror than out taming the jungle.’’
New Zealand-born Ryan has been exploring colonisation in his art since 2005, drawn to it because, he said, it was recent history that was ‘‘still evolving’’.
‘‘I can’t see why all of us can’t live together,’’ he told the Mercury.
‘‘That’s what drives my work really, is a desire for us to be a better country that accepts and understands each other.’’
He said he had made his peace with members of the Aboriginal community and others offended by his 2010 exhibition No Country for Dreaming, which featured disturbing scenes of first engagement between European settlers and indigenous inhabitants, paired with titles that were meant to be ‘‘deliberately and overtly ironic’’.
One showed an Aboriginal man’s body hanging from a tree and was titled ‘‘The local boys just seem to hang about all day’’. Another seemed to show an Aboriginal man performing a sex act on an English officer. ‘‘Taking a shine to the locals,’’ it was titled. Ryan said the exhibition, at Wollongong City Gallery, had in the end not hindered his career.
‘‘I ended up meeting some very forward-thinking indigenous people who were very supportive of my work.
‘‘I did also meet with some others who totally disagreed. Talking [to them] was really beneficial and quite helpful to me.
‘‘I think we both realised we had ideas that couldn’t be bent. We did agree to disagree.’’
The biennial Geelong prize is acquisitive and serves to add to the gallery’s contemporary collection.
Guest judge Susan McCulloch, an art writer, praised Ryan’s treatment of ‘‘an uncomfortable subject’’.
‘‘More frequently portrayed in recent times by leading contemporary indigenous artists, it is both refreshing and timely therefore to see a non-indigenous artist focusing in entirely contemporary manner on this topic so tellingly and with such a fine sense of aesthetic.’’