Every new work is a game of hazarding, I am thinking to myself as I stare at the painting on the easel in Ryan Mosley’s studio at Persistence Works in Sheffield. Beneath those huge skylights, you could call it a studio scene straight out of central casting: stacks of paint-smeared plastic buckets; packets of latex gloves; unwashed coffee mugs; dozens of half-squeezed-out tubes of oil paint heaped up on rolling trolleys; ranks of oil bars; aluminium ladders; a bizarre range of props (including a portrait bust of Ringo in zapata moustache and a skateboard).
The fabricator of that painting on the easel directly in front of me is standing at my side, wondering too what kind of thing this is that he is bringing into being. He started it later yesterday afternoon, and over four furious hours he brought it to the state in which we can see it now. It is characteristic of many of his other works in certain respects: the carnival exuberance of colour, for example, the harlequin patterning. And then there is the man in the top hat who is refusing to meet our gaze, and that animal – moose? ass? donkey? cow? creature of myth or scripture? – which seems much more ready to declare itself. Is that beast, somewhat surprisingly, greeting us with a wave? There are three other brand new works attached to the wall too. He is coaxing them all along together. Do they represent a change of direction?
Is Ryan at a crossroads or not? He is forty now, and therefore we could call him a mid-career painter. But where does a mid-career painter go next? Is there a strategy, or is it just one damned thing after another – or somewhere between those two options? We talk about pressing matters: whether he is more a European artist than a British one, and what that might mean; the various galleries with which he is currently working.
He hovers over me as we talk, taller than me, dressed all in black. Were he not of such a gentle disposition, his size, his physique, his look could perhaps have made a wrestler of him, I am thinking to myself… His look is questing, restless. He bobs a little as he talks. He spills a furious number of words. We walk over to the giant board of post cards on which he has over the years pinned up many images by heroes of his from student days (he graduated from the Royal College of Art twelve years ago) and on. Here they all are: Goya’s terrifying bestriding giant; Titian’s ‘Allegory of Prudence’; Brueghel; Velasquez; Zurbaran; Magritte; the beguiling story-telling of Ron Kitaj; Arcimboldo; Watteau; Picasso…
Ryan airs a few unanswerable questions as we look together. ‘Is Picasso Spanish or European or perhaps both? Sidney Nolan lived and painted in Britain. Was he still Australian by then?’ He pauses, then looks at me. ‘How could I not have a European perspective when I revered all these people?’
His galleries are in Antwerp, Berlin and Leipzig. A show of his works on paper has just closed in Copenhagen. He had another show in Antwerp last autumn. At the moment he is working towards one with Eigen Art of Berlin and Leipzig, which will open on 26 October. There is the promise of a museum show in Britain in the near future, which will be his first. He recently stopped being represented by a gallery in London. Did he mind that very much?
‘Strange though it may sound, I feel more connected to Europe here in Sheffield than I did when I was living and working in London. In London, the gallerist would drop in for twenty minutes and then leave again. Here people are more inclined to come for a day or two. In London, I always felt that I was outside some inner circle. And the galleries themselves feel so money-oriented these days. Artists’ estates are often more important than representing or nurturing living painters. I barely ever went to private views. I got it into my head that to go to a private view packed with people, where you drank wine and could barely see the art at all, was a sort of betrayal…’ He pauses. ‘When I was there of course, I used to think: how could I ever leave London and the London art world?’ He did though. And he is prospering in Sheffield.
When at college, he was out on his own in one important respect. He was a figurative painter. Now the world of art has caught up with him. Figurative art is back in vogue. It was just a matter of waiting.
Ryan can’t imagine not being a painter of the kind that he is. ‘I like the lo-fi-ness of it all, the mixing and the priming and all the rest, just as it would have been done five or six hundred years ago. Old paintings can look so contemporary. Those figures in Piero della Francesca’s ‘Nativity’ for example. They’re just like people waiting at the bus stop! I like the fact that it is all so labour-intensive, the fact that you work and work on them until in time perhaps they become precious objects…’
And so we circle back to the new paintings, and what they might or might not be saying about a new sense of direction. One of them shows floating heads in a swimming pool. A man is pushing off in a boat in another, bound for goodness knows where. In yet another, a solitary walker, head down, watched over by a cat, has only a staff for company. A pilgrim then? Give me my scallop shell of quiet, my staff of faith to walk upon…
‘I don’t know where any of these protagonists – if that’s what they are – come from. Is it the Greeks perhaps, Greek myths, that are coming back to haunt me? Odysseus and his journeyings? None of my characters are of now…’
It’s definitely now here though. In fact, it’s a Thursday afternoon in Brown Street, Sheffield, and the sun has just burst through those magnificent skylights just above where we are standing.