Shadow, light, heat, wind, cool, calm. The Australian landscape is as wild as it is tranquil. Intoxicating, entrancing and enticing, throughout Australian history artists have sought to render images of the land that they have traversed - on the walls of caves, on bark, on canvas and on linen. To this day, painters of the past and present continue to give viewers an insight into the diverse and seductive nature of the coasts, deserts and bushlands that are the very bones of our country.
Kathryn Ryan is one of these artists. She has spent almost exclusively the last twenty years working to capture the natural environment that surrounds her. Soft fog filtered through early morning light that causes the ground to seep slightly when underfoot, the eerie groans of tall cypress branches creaking in coastal winds and the colours that define her sense of place – the greens, greys and atmospheric blues that change according to time and the seasons. ‘The actual trees and their particular shapes almost act as a signature, an individual relic or script and the way that they are placed within the landscape is important. Space is just as important as capturing the trees.’
Consistently Ryan has produced abundant bodies of work that explore and expose the intimacies of the vistas of South Western Victoria. Yet just as time and exposure to the elements affects the structure of the trees whose arbours have been the patient subject of the artist’s oeuvre, so do these factors influence the creative direction of the painter. Straying from the familiarity of home, Ryan has spent the last few years dividing her time between Australia and the jewelled cities of the United Arab Emirates, Dubai & Abu Dhabi.
Being thrust into an environment of contrasts: of barren deserts and man-made oasis, of suffocating outdoor heat and heavily air-conditioned interiors, of a light more harsh and direct than witnessed in the gentle light of the Western District, Ryan took on elements of this new dynamism. Extending her intuitive way of rendering atmosphere and light, Ryan embraced charcoal drawing to capture the striking silhouettes she witnessed in her surrounds. She created exquisite works of frangipani foliage draping against concrete walls and intricate Arabic lanterns casting lace shadows across rooms. Although she embraced her new terrain with vigour, when the opportunity arose to divide her time more equally between the two parts of the world and return to her Victorian shores she took it - while retaining this exciting and refreshing way of seeing.
This latest body of work by Ryan is an important one. It is a fusion of the artist’s experience- the history of her practice depicting her familiar trees and a transition, as she includes the control of light she mastered in the UAE. Ryan has also wandered from the paddocks and taken to the coast, challenging herself to capture the wild southern oceans and the enormity of ancient rocks in the same way she would render the light cast through the stained glass Arabic ornaments she admired. It is this newfound way of experiencing the surrounds that defines her fresh artistic direction as Ryan continues along this winding path. Shadow and light sing beside each other and minute details take centre stage as readily as towering, majestic cypress. Ryan said of her past works ‘The tree perhaps reflects my own sense of self – it could sub-consciously be seen as a self portrait, myself within the landscape space.’ The artist is now looking forward to broadening her focus, opening her practice to new inspirations and seeing where indeed she may find herself.
Essay by Melanie Caple, BArts,(FA) MArts, 2015