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The Crosses of Bryan Ryley: a Reflection on Anti-Memory

Dr. Mercedes F. Duran

Department of Critical Studies, University of British Columbia Okanagan, October 28, 2005

The paintings of Bryan Ryley invite us to a cultural feast in which a multitude of signs converge and give meaning to the tense architecture of grids that simultaneously contain and unleash them. The cross, main theme of this series, becomes a palimpsest in which the surface text can only attain its actual, complete, meaning through first deciphering the hidden layers: there always seems to be a concealed presence underneath it.


Gray and pink, brown, black, blue, red, ochre, green, or yellow crosses constructed with, defined, or sheathed by, thin, contrasting, textured vertical lines suggestive of prison bars: beyond them, beneath or behind them, something—perhaps memory—happens. Trough them—and in spite of them—the ghosts of a nation’s past find a space from which to stage an assault on the epos, on the black hole of the anti-memory. In The Imaginary Institution of Society, Cornelius Castoriadis states: “art does not discover, it constitutes; and the relation between what it constitutes and the real is not a relation of verification (133).” Ryley’s paintings constitute a complex system of references whose ultimate referent is the uncovering of the real.

In order to convey the multiple layers of meaning that Riley’s palimpsests, product of a sabbatical year spent in Spain, evoke in me as a Spaniard, I must resort to history. In 1492 Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, the “Catholic Monarchs,” complete the so-called Re-Conquest of the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors with the capture of Granada from Boabdil, the last of the Nazari Caliphs, thus ending almost 800 years of Muslim domination of the Iberian Peninsula, a period through which there was also a substantial Jewish presence in both the Muslim and Christian kingdoms. Also in 1492, financed by the Crown, Columbus “discovers” America, and the grammarian Antonio de Nebrija publishes the first grammar of the “Castilian or Spanish” language. That same year the monarchs sign the decree of expulsion of the Jews, and a few years later a similar decree about their Muslim subjects. Machiavelli, a contemporary of Ferdinand of Aragon, describes him in Il Principe as a “quasi principe nuovo” because of his “use” of religion to control the newly consolidated kingdom and to perpetuate his power:

Nessuna cosa fa tanto stimare uno principe, quanto fanno le grandi imprese e dari di sérari esempli. Noi abbiamo ne' nostri tempi Ferrando di Aragona, presente re di Spagna. Costui si può chiamare quasi principe nuovo perché di uno re debole è diventato perfama e per gloria el primo re de' Cristiani; e, se considerrete le azioni sua, le troverrete tutte grandissime, e qualcuna estraordinaria. Lui, nel principio del suo regno, assaltò la Granata: e quella impresa fu il fondamento dello stato suo [...] Oltre a questo, per potere intraprendere maggiori imprese, servendosi sempre della religione, si volse a una pietosa crudeltà, cacciando e spogliando el suo regno de' Marrani: né può essere questo esemplo più miserabile né più raro (90-91).

Thus, 1492 marks the starting point for the forced imposition of a monological epos in Spain, an epos based on the assumption of a homogenous, Christian, “Castilian” Spain, an ideological construct that several centuries of Inquisition, with its relentless persecution of dissenting thought and “false converts,” would forcibly help consolidate. The existence of a multiethnic, multi-religious, plurilogical reality in Spain for almost a millennium prior to 1492 has, since then, been discussed openly only by exiled Spanish intellectuals. In fact, centuries of Spain’s history have become an anti-memory, a black hole where the real disappears, replaced in reality by an ideological construct. This poignant blindness towards its own cultural experience, this epos-driven anti-memory, renders the cultural reality of contemporary Spain almost impossible to understand.

It is precisely in this context that Ryley’s paintings acquire their most compelling dimension. Within them—as in 1492 Spain—the cross permeates everything, conceals everything, and overwhelms everything: it becomes the only language, the only possible epistemology. In the name of the cross Spain’s wealth, its multicultural, polyphonic reality, died the terrible death of the tortured, the excluded, the banished, the forgotten. In the name of the cross America was conquered and colonized, its (surviving) native populations forcibly converted to Christianity. In the name of the cross the Inquisition prospered several centuries, leaving a trail of burned bodies and terror in its path. In the name of the cross the dictator Francisco Franco staged his own crusade against the fledging Spanish Republic in 1936, which cost Spain a million deaths, and more than a million exiled. If I had to find a single sign that could characterize Spain’s history since 1492, it would be the cross. 

But Ryley’s crosses are encased in, constructed or defined with, vertical bars, which change their meaning in a fundamental way. The cross becomes the prison, or is seen through a prison, or is constructed, allowed to be, by a prison: they become a testimony of what (and how) it was, as opposed to what the Spanish epos that was constructed through them pretends it was. Ryley’s crosses bleed, are polluted, fractured, ambiguous, often cruel. Ryley’s bars imprison them, and allow the ghosts of those who were imprisoned by them to look at us from beyond the black hole of Spain’s anti-memory. Ryley’s paintings bring forth the presence of Spain’s past and re-inscribe it in the collective memory, and the present. Perhaps I should have said that the real has found a way of permeating Ryley’s paintings with a web of cultural references than can only (or really) be deciphered by a collective memory Ryley does not need to share to be able to convey. Art constitutes. 

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