A portrait is not often the product of an obsessive theme. But in the case of Thirroul based painter Paul Ryan, a single painting of Noah Taylor just wasn’t possible. One image became almost forty and his Archibald entry blossomed to thirteen. As a portrait “13 Noah’s” has a kitschy irreverence that breaks with convention, yet is underscored by an unnerving intimacy. The shadows and furrows of a dark palette evoke a face seen on waking or in a nondescript private moment. It is a portrait built by shards rather than a singular stroke.


Taylor admitted to being surprised by a work that simultaneously reminded him of a “classic stalker’s bedroom” and darker aspects of his own prison art and vintage painting collections. This is the first Archibald entry he has consented to and his first official portrait:

“The interesting thing about Paul Ryan’s ’13 Noahs’ is that it works on a sculptural level as well as a traditional portrait , the slightly chaotic assembly and the use of tatty old op shop paintings , mirrors, all reflect an aspect of my personality as much or more than the actual portraits themselves, there’s often a slightly misleading presentation of the subjects persona in most portraiture in that the subject is often depicted with a slightly flattering and not necessarily accurate gravitas , by selection of a single image, the most heroic, the most flattering and so forth. There’s a tendency in photos to project an image of oneself as you’d like to be seen or thought of, serious, brooding, sexy, whatever, but Paul has definitely nailed some sense of me, not all pretty neither.”

The first “Noahs” were generated from manipulated photographs artfully distorted on Ryan’s computer screen. But this May, Taylor sat for Ryan and the two even exchanged artworks. Far from fan fiction, Ryan was compelled to Noah’s “pixyish, vulnerable, weathered, anti-heroic” face and Taylor had been following Ryan’s work for some years. There is an aspect of complicity in this portrait that is often missing in the pomposity or contrived grandeur of a typical Archibald portrait. Perhaps this is due to the sort of brooding painters Paul Ryan admires: Velazquez, Goya, Caravaggio or even the melancholic contemporary music he plays in his studio. The work is post punk and post photography.

Portraiture has travelled swiftly in art history from being the central iconic art form to the outskirts of academic anachronism. So, when an actor “belongs” to photography how do you paint him and make him more palpable or more real? Ryan’s response to the challenge was to paint (and paint) until the medium became the message:

“The photograph has been used in portrait painting since Caravaggio. It is not new. What the artist does with the photo is the difference between making a copy and making something of interest, something of worth. With paint it is possible to manipulate every aspect of the image making. It is only after multiple paintings that I found this possible.”


Image: Paul Ryan, Thirteen Noahs, Archibald Prize Finalist
Courtesy the artist and the Art Gallery of New South Wales

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