Painter offers more than meets the eye Art review: Expressionist Ruth Pettus infuses works with a below-the-surface tension that keeps them intriguing.

March 20, 1996|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

Ruth Pettus has been creating expressionistic paintings of men for about a dozen years now, so long that you'd think she would get tired of doing it and move on to something else. Or, if not, that those who have followed her work for a while would get tired of looking at it.

But she doesn't, and we don't, and with good reason in both cases. Pettus has always been a good painter, but her work broadens and deepens as it goes on. It's a pleasure to see how in these works the act of painting and the subject matter work together to make these pictures so successful.

Pettus' brush stroke is expressive and loose rather than tight, but not in a flowing, liquid, lyrical way. Her surfaces are dry, and the paint looks as if it has been dragged across the canvas with anxious effort. In places the marks are jagged or stumpy, and they often contradict the poses or expressions of Pettus' figures, which can look innocuous enough on the surface.

The tension in this artist's gesture thus helps to suggest that there is more going on under the surface of her figures than they reveal, and that's at the heart of Pettus' art. To this viewer, the men in Pettus' paintings may mean men as different from or opposed to women, but it's far more satisfying to think of them as the unknowable Other in our lives.

That can mean the opposite sex, but it can also more universally mean the unknowable part of what goes on behind the facade of others, or even what goes on in our own minds (and even bodies) that we're unaware of.

The figure in "The Man in a Red Shirt" stands in a landscape looking placid enough, until you notice that what you took for a pole behind him at first glance is actually a gun he carries in his right hand and rests on his shoulder. He can kill you. But at least his gun is out in the open. It's possible to read this as an anti-gun picture, but it's more rewarding to think of it as referring to the potential for violence in all of us.

The "Seated Man by a Window" turns in his swivel chair to face us, gesturing with his hands as if making a conversational point. He could be doing that, or he could be an executive firing you. Or giving you a raise. The expression on the face of "Man's Head III" can be read as one of evil or of horror.

Pettus used to show her men in shadowy locations where the whole milieu looked sinister. Her work is more ambiguous, open to more interpretations and thus much better now. And while it always had presence, it's better in that department, too. To be in a room surrounded by a dozen or so of her paintings is to feel a sense of tension and possibility about what these works are going to reveal to you about themselves and about you. It's ZTC exciting.

Not every work here succeeds equally.

"Man with Folded Arms" looks a bit too obvious; and I may be missing something, but "Untitled" looks as if it was abandoned rather than finished. But as long as Pettus can go on being as interesting an artist as she is here, she can go on painting pictures of men till the cows come home and let's hope they don't.

Art Review

What: "Ruth Pettus: New Paintings"

Where: Galerie Francoise, Green Spring Station, Falls and Joppa roads

When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, through April 3

$ Call: (410) 337-2787

Pub Date: 3/20/96

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