Footwear is on display in Ruth Pettus' shoe story

September 19, 1996|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

The show this month at the Resurgam Gallery looks like a shoe store run by the Mad Hatter -- or by a slightly crazed cobbler inspired by Dada masters Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp.

After more than a decade, Ruth Pettus has gotten tired of being pointed out as the "men-in-suits painter."

So for her "A History in the Life of a Shoe, Part II,"' she's installed about 75 examples of artful footwear in the gallery at 910 South Charles St., about three gulps down from the New World Coffee Shop.

They're shoes she's deconstructed, reconstructed, un-constructed, un-tongued, unlaced, re-laced, de-soled, unsold, re-souled, turned-inside-out, sliced, diced, bent, broken and battered, and some she's just preserved as purely unique specimens of the shoemaker's craft.

She has slathered her shoes with road tar, sprinkled them with pebbles, swaddled them with gauze, stuffed them with sticks, stones and possibly bones. Her shoes rest quietly on the floor, mount whitewashed brick pedestals, march up the walls, hang from the ceiling, dance to Gene Kelly choreographies.

Her shoes have much of the ambiguous, enigmatic, expressionistic quality of her often-acclaimed men-in-suits series. But although many of her art-shoes are weathered and worn, they often seem more lighthearted than her suits.

Those men in suits often lurched out of the shadows like somebody you didn't want to meet in an alley, often indistinct in a frame of light as if they had suddenly appeared in your bedroom, uninvited. Sometimes they just looked like your boss.

Pettus does have a "dark" corner at the rear of the gallery where the shoes look as if they'd been discarded by Frankenstein's monster after a trek through the swamp, or last worn by the creature from the black lagoon. But most of her creations are as easygoing as a pair of Birkenstocks.

She turned to shoes as an art material during a dry spell in her painting.

"The same way I had the thing to do the men in suits," she says. "It was just a quick idea."

She'd heard of an artist working in shoes, and she'd been reading Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities."

"And there was a lot of shoe in it," she says. "In the Bastille, Dr. Manette earned his living and keeps his sanity as a shoemaker, a cobbler."

She went out to the Goodwill store and bought a few shoes and started working on them. She spread roofing tar over a man's shoe and shoved in little branches from her mimosa tree and called it "First Shoe."

"Looks like a 1970s shoe," a visitor says.

"I thought it looked like a 1790s shoe," Pettus says. "A high Georgian shoe."

It reminds her of the description in "A Tale of Two Cities" when the mail coach is pushed up Shooter's Hill. ("He walked uphill in the mire ")

David Frank, the poet, gave her a pair of old sneakers she pulled apart and used in four different ways. She splayed one open and zTC tacked it on the wall like a specimen of some rare winged creature. She cut the upper off another one to show off the inner sole, or perhaps, soul.

"I like this inside," she says. "This great sort of blue landscape and sand color there. It's evocative: Hokusai's wave, a blue Mediterranean sky."

Some art lovers might only see the inside of a dirty old shoe, of course. But certainly everyone can be thankful her shoes don't come with living smells.

She's dedicated the show to John Linardi, her neighborhood shoe repairman in Charles Village. He died in May. His sign -- shaped like a white Oxford Jay Gatsby might have worn while golfing -- enhanced St. Paul Street for more years than anybody ever counted.

When she went in to retrieve some shoes, she found out he'd died the night before. His niece and nephew gave her a suitcase full of shoes left unclaimed over the years. Some are in the Resurgam show, transformed.

"Although," she writes in her dedication, "I know he would never have repaired shoes the way I have fixed them up."

But her show does honor his craft. And her art-shoes are always ingenious and often beautiful.

She sees her shoes in part like the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem: "Generations have trod, had trod, have trod; All is smeared with trade, bleared, smeared with toil "

And in part: "Singin' in the Rain."

And she has not given up painting. In fact, she'll soon show big, new work at the Arlington Art Center in Arlington, Va. -- but not of men wearing suits.

"They're wearing shirts," she says.

Ruth Pettus

What: "A History in the Life of a Shoe II"

Where: Resurgam Gallery, 910 South Charles St.

When: Thursday to Saturday, noon-6 p.m.; Sunday, 1 p.m.-4 p.m., or by appointment. Through Oct. 2.

$ Call: (410) 962-0513

Pub Date: 9/19/96

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