Latest Ruth Pettus figures come out from the shadows

March 11, 1998|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

The more Ruth Pettus paints men, the less threatening the men seem.

I first saw Pettus' expressionistic, gestural paintings of men in indeterminate settings (vaguely defined landscapes or shadowy rooms) several years ago. Then, they seemed to be comments on traditional male dominance and the male's potential for violence. Later paintings seemed less to suggest men specifically and more to suggest the unknowable Other -- whether it was what lay behind the facades of other people, or what lay hidden and undiscoverable (perhaps repressed) within oneself.

In the larger, more significant paintings of her current show at Galerie Francoise, the men and their surroundings now appear to be expressing emotional states and reflecting ruminations on the human condition. The ominous element has been shed, and Pettus now appears to speak directly to the viewer about shared states of mind.

"Man Wearing Yellow Shirt" could well represent the manic and depressive, or aggressive and passive, or joyful and sorrowful aspects of human nature. The yellow shirt, slashingly painted, suggests a consciousness barely under control and contrasts with the somber dignity of the black pants. The more one looks at this painting, the more abstract it becomes, for its essence is not the representation of a human figure but the representation of thoughts and feelings.

In "Three Men," Pettus further abstracts her figures into black silhouettes, the central one so generalized it looks more like a tree trunk than a person. The three are gathered in a drab green landscape, so steeply slanted the horizon is above their heads and no part of them reaches into the light of the sky above. The painting pictures life as a dark passage toward an unknowable destination.

The largest painting here, "Two Men on a Bench," is both the most representational and the most positive in the show, and perhaps the most of both that Pettus has yet done. While virtually faceless like all of Pettus' figures, the two men are otherwise more fully delineated than usual and sit on their bench in positions of relaxation and openness. There's none of the usual Pettus tension here and more than the usual light, especially in the almost dazzling white shirt worn by the man on the right. Taken in the context of Pettus' other paintings, this suggests that while the human condition may be generally bleak, it is possible to escape the big picture by living individual moments to the full.

Even with repeated viewings, Pettus' work declines to grow stale, and that's one sign of a good artist.

Paintings

What: "Ruth Pettus: New Work"

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

When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, noon to 4 p.m. Sundays; through March 29

Call: 410-337-2787

Pub Date: 3/11/98

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