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Ruth Pettus: Once . . .

By Blake de Pastino | Posted 5/19/2004

Ruth Pettus: Once . . .

At Resurgam Gallery through May 30

The latest paintings by Ruth Pettus approach a lovely oblivion. In Once . . . , her show of recent work at Resurgam Gallery, the artist known largely for depictions of forceful figures--bilious ogres in business suits, needle-limbed people struggling through barren landscapes--now can be seen working her scenes down to a new set of essentials. And she seems to uncover more the closer she draws to that null mark.

Pettus' is the kind of style that makes the most of few gestures--meticulous brush strokes, thin skins of water-based paint--and it's that much more effective when it's not forced to make conversation, representing common objects or making literal arguments. "Tree," for example, a mushroom of black rising from the bottom of the frame, is far less rewarding than "Red Pony" right next to it, a vista set off by a sky of russet at the top, a thick pasture of slate gray below, and in the lower left corner, a calligraphic whorl of red, less the outline of an animal than an ideogram meant to represent one.

"Wood," likewise, presents an effective scene: A dark horizon appears to erupt in thick, upward spurts of black--mottled against the ivory background, they look like aspens braving the winter. But this is no match for the full-on hypnosis of, say, "Night Flight," which gives you tantalizingly little in the way of visual cues: Swells of black linger in angry bands at its base, overhead a fog of light gray lingers, and in-between a dogleg of black paint appears only barely to hang there, ready to plummet into an abysmal sea.

It's an ongoing dialogue between the old Pettuses and the new, and its clearest moment takes place in Resurgam's front room. Near the entrance hangs "Once," a giant painting that hasn't been shown since it was completed in 2002, and it's very much of a piece with Pettus' work from that time. Notably, it features people--24 of them, with heads, feet, shoulders--variously walking, running, and reclining on a brick-red plain under eggy clouds. They're black and angular and seem pained as they amble around, but they can't compete with the luxe emptiness that looms just a few feet away, in the small but captivating "Wave." Again, a dun sky hangs over a gray sea, but here there's no figure to guide us--no red pony, no tailspinning biplane. Layered with generations of light, broad strokes, it offers the show's most heavenly emptiness, which takes shape just off of dead center, where a fingernail-flake of paint has been lifted off and then patched, all but begging you to place your finger on the hole where the heart of the work once was.

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