Earthly Delites exhibition, by Anne Ryan
© Anne Ryan – Photo: Lucia Pajon

One of the venues I had the fortune to visit just before this global house arrest measure was imposed on us was Hastings Contemporary. A luminous building, which looks outwards to the sea, and inwards to the work of artists who deserve our attentive gaze.

Anne Ryan’s Earthly Delites is a show that draws us in with a party of colour and organic shapes, mostly human, but there are animals and other objects too. The usual way of rendering these painted figures would be a one-sided rectangular or square canvas, but the Irish artist wants to break from the academic canon.

The process of breaking the frame started out of the need to be resourceful every time she got right to the end of each one of her sketchbooks. The obvious next step was to recycle the cardboard back to continue making marks with her ideas.

Her explorations are always guided by her freedom on what approach to take, and it is obvious that she seeks to enjoy the process of making. So glueing two cardboard backs together, making cutouts, and applying acrylic paint to both sides is a very immersive – if laborious way to, in Ryan’s words, ’cause chaos, cause mess and get out of there’.

Instead of hanging her constructions, a series of wooden tables of different sizes act as ‘pedestals’ for these three-dimensional paintings. But any traces of monumentality are quickly rejected, and they invite us instead to walk and gather around the pieces. For those of us who want go beyond the shallows, this is not a collection of frozen-in-time poses, but more of a irresistible ‘come and play’ whisper in the ear. As soon as we dive in, the riot starts and every single shape fills us in with their presence: a leg, an arching spine, a planet, a buttock –or more than one; a guitar player and the frenzy of the mosh pit where you can let go and make your own rituals, more real and expressive than the current artificiality of the outside world we are drowned in.

The artist’s openness to whatever comes her way is evident in the sources she references in her work, from contemporary visual culture to classical painting to sculpture. And the titles she chooses provide further evidence of her playfulness: Disco Legs, Bend Over, Mosh Pit, Rockers and Planets, Crab and Handstand, Dice, Trapeze Artist, Wrestling Men and Four Women Touching Their Toes, and so on.

The title of the show acknowledges a specific work that inspired these pieces: The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, created between 1490 and 1500 is a meditation on the fate of humanity. The triptych shows Eden, Paradise and Hell as the unavoidable stages that the naked bodies will go through. It is a show of decadent revelry. But Ryan also takes in the notion of the pleasure garden, visually charged with colour and sensuality; ripe with forms waiting to be discovered in every corner.

A number of artists have taken on the pleasure theme throughout the centuries, and one of them, Andre Derain, the cofounder of Fauvism chose to represent the ultimate party god, Dyonisus – or Bacchus as known by the Romans – at his most dynamic and colourful. His Bacchus Dance (1906), brought the modernist approach into play, and being a watercolour, instead of cutouts, the female figures were partially left untouched, letting the whiteness of the paper shine through the two very Western female bodies.

We had to mention Derain’s watercolour because Ryan’s pieces echo and amplify that joy. That combination of theatre, intoxication and madness that is just part of the human condition. That being present in the moment throughout the whole process of making and transferring life onto a surface, without any traces of nostalgia. Rock on.