The Last of a Species

Extinction is a constant threat in Limerick painter Robert Ryan's 'huge and uncaring world'

For such allegorical and romantically infused paintings, the pieces that make up Robert Ryan's exhibition The Last of a Species, currently running at the Naughton Gallery at Queen's, are hardly enigmatic. The images instead spill with suggestion, swell with an unapologetic lucidity.

They portray the same, but subtly different, animal, naked and often alone in an unforgiving landscape. Ryan uses paint beautifully in his delineation of these creatures, in a way often reminiscent of the European landscape tradition. But there is nothing natural about these bonsai forests and stalagmite islands. These are existentialist essays in paint.

'Fallen Tree' sees his strange albino creatures, this time somewhere between a cat and a greyhound, staring forlornly at an uprooted tree, under a bruising, menacing sky. Question immediately crowd in. What can have uprooted the tree? The brooding sky implicates the awesome power of nature.

But there are further questions. What holds the animal's attention? What lies beneath the tree's splaying branches? (It may not be what the artist intended, but I am also irresistibly reminded of Dogmatix – from the Asterix books – issuing an anguished howl upon encountering an uprooted tree.)

'Island' sees a single white animal, this time a goat/deer hybrid, nestling beneath the branches of an impossibly dense copse of trees on an impossibly small island. The improbability of the scene is undercut by the romantic melancholy that invades these pictures.

The isolated creature, alone under a balmy sky, is condemned to cling to the shadows of the encroaching foliage. The painting is reminiscent of Arnold Bocklin's 'Isle of the Dead' – the forbidding trees bursting through the placid water, dwarfing the small white figure beneath it.

Robert Ryan


'Passing Cloud' sees a group of the animals (a pack? They look distinctly canine here) on an altogether more barren island, two twig-like trees bursting through the loamy soil, an all dog cast of waiting for Godot. They stare powerlessly at the single cloud in the sky, unaware that it mirrors the shape of the one creature to sleep through the excitement. Jaded, he snoozes under the larger of the two trees. He has seen it all before.

'The Grove Guardian' is the very mirror of 'The Island', only this time the copse is land-locked. The animal could walk away any time it chooses. It remains, however, a prisoner, kept not by physical bonds but emotional or ethical ones (the anthropomorphism is, necessarily, strong in these paintings). The clue is in the title: a guardian must guard. Something in the trees ties it to them, sees it stepping from the shadows en pointe – alert, aggressive and ready for fight, not flight.

'Windbreaker' sees two of the animals, lambs, hiding from a stiff sea breeze behind the tattered twig of a tree. That they are resting on a grassy promontory some feet from the plant, thus rendering it useless, is by the by. It is habit that is shown here or more properly ritual. This is what the creatures do because they have always done it. The tree was enormous but has been eroded by the elements, whittled away to uselessness. But still they come because they must come.

'Last of the Species' sees a tiny animal again resting on a rock in the foreground of one of the larger canvases. Sentry-like trees lean in on either side of it. Behind him lies an infinite, horizonless sea blurring into an enormous sky, latticed with sunlight breaking through the clouds. It is alone in unknowing, unknowable nature, a tick in the process of being shaken from a dog's back.

There seems nowhere for the narrative to go. We have come to the end of the story. Except there is one further painting. In a tiny picture, as neat and deft as the others, we meet the 'ghost of a lost species'. Here a single, grey, wraith-like being shivers by a pool under the blind moon. It is a memory now.

That Ryan has an interest in zoology and an obvious sympathy for extinct species need hardly be stressed. But these haunting paintings of loneliness and a search for meaning in a huge and uncaring world must surely speak to us about our own lives.

The Last of a Species runs in the Naughton Gallery at Queen's, Belfast until August 25.