The Ryan Sisters: Dark Pit
*dumb brun(ette), Melbourne

Like a dismal Netflix binge, Melbourne has supplied a stream of remarkable exhibitions dealing with terror, horror and repulsion. While this is a concern that has been festering for decades under the macabre guise of practitioners of the abysmal, it is a sensibility notably regenerated as of late by female voices. These conjurers of millennial incantations help expel the phantasms of straight white old men from the gallery walls they torment (Comte de Lautréamont, Man Ray, Antonin Artaud). Group exhibitions such as The Dark Arts curated by Linsey Gosper (2013), Nigredo curated by Bon Mott (2016) and Can’t Look, Can’t Look Away curated by Amelia Winata (2016) seem more sympathetic to A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) by Ana Lily Amirpour than Scream by Wes Craven (1996). This is partly because they incorporate a breadth of experiences that widen the ‘cycloptic’ or constrictive vision that typically haunts the grotesque and horror genre.

In the context of cinema, countless blogs and news media sites put forth a “new wave” of female directors that are applying the codes of body horror to gaze at the hideousness of carnal matter – such as Julia Ducournau with her cannibalistic film Raw (2016). This turn is reflected in contemporary art, with artists that assault bodies in their practice without necessarily regurgitating the sexist or racist vices of their source material. And even though grouping artists and curators on gendered terms here might be a problematic gesture, as an audience member it is certainly enticing to observe the conventions of a stale industry being manipulated by forces that reconstitute its narrow and worn out world-views.

The Ryan Sisters’ Gruesome Twosome (2017) echo this tendency to de-cock Cronenberg-esque narratives with an exhibition at Nicholas Projects. Their work consists of a twisted body that mutates and spreads out like a worm in a darkened space: its lower body facing a black wall while its headless torso is slammed on the floor. The attire of this thing is bare and monochrome, comprising a grey jumper, black leggings and white socks – like an artist’s wardrobe during installation period. Although the decapitated figure is clearly eerie, there is a playfulness that pervades the pose and gesticulation of the sculpture, which appears to be caught amidst motion. It would seem as if the body had suddenly malfunctioned in the space, exhibiting an unexpected elasticity that flaccidly succumbs to gravity as its head is swallowed by a squiggly torso. Alternatively, the piece also evokes the uncanny picture of conjoined siblings (as alluded by the title), which foregrounds the collaborative nature of The Ryan Sister project (Pip and Natalie Ryan). What remains clear is that the body is represented here as a troubled yet humorous form that contorts under the pressure of the dark walls that surround it.

Gazing at the sculpture, with its casual clothing and distorted figure, I was reminded of the apprehensive swirls that prelude an exhibition. Incidents such as spilling a bucket of paint, a flat screen falling from the wall or finding out that an ex-partner is part of the same group show (!), unleash a sense of knotted apprehension. This feeling of disquietude is exacerbated by the proportions of the Nicholas Projects gallery, which is a characteristically modest square-shaped space. The walls – which have been painted pitch black – give the impression of a physical disturbance: as if the room had abruptly compressed moments prior to this horrific scene. These gestures encode the space with a fearsome atmosphere, transforming the gallery into a pit that evokes Gothic spatial tropes, such as the dungeon, where torturous horrors unleash.

In his timely article published in Frieze, Oh the Horror, Daniel Baumann argues that the grotesque is currently gaining traction, as it tends to re-surface in art during times of fear and uncertainty. The exhibition Gothic: Transmutations of Horror in Late-20th-Century Art (1997) substantiates this claim in some regards, as its curatorial premise sought to survey a Gothic revival (not unlike today) that took place at the turn of the millennium with artists like Cindy Sherman and The Chapman Brothers.

The Chapman Brothers are worth a special mention in fact, as this morbid art duo is clearly parodied by The Ryan Sisters. This humorous quotation is indicative of the Sister’s broader methodology: which tends to appropriate masculine horror detritus to reinvigorate it with blunt conceptual games. A similar act of poaching is performed on Robert Gober (also a part of Gothic), whose sculptures feature comparable bodily forms and sensibilities albeit stuffed with a latent misogyny. One could say that The Ryan Sister exhume horror scenes from the derogatory legacies of damaged Europeans and their perverse post-War fantasies (Hans Bellmer). Leaving behind dismembered limbs that exist without the baggage of an underlying chauvinistic sexual violence. Their interest in worrisome forms is reiterated by the activities they undertake outside of their own arts practice, such as the curation of the traveling exhibition Horror Show (2015-16) – which provides a snapshot of local artists dedicated to delivering frights.

However, the question remains: are artworks like these symptomatic of a climate of fear (as Baumann suggests)? Considering that an arts practice resembles a prolonged state of beggarly uncertainty, it comes as no surprise that The Ryan Sisters respond grotesquely to its most privileged and unpredictable stage: the white cube. This is the art world’s best lit site of horror, where dreams shatter and nightmares come true. An insular void that swallows savings, hope and the capacity to sustain meaningful relationships. Gruesome Twosome is like re-visiting one’s own gallery meltdowns, where visceral anxieties reach the depths of a hallucinatory dark hole that mangles and distorts. A cheeky twosome between The Babadook (2014) and Seven (1995) in the set of Color Me Blood Red (1965).