Making an art of men in suits Ruth Pettus began painting the male figure because she thought it would be an 'interesting exercise.' More than a decade later, she hasn't lost interest.


October 04, 1998|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

She has men in her life, lots of them. They've been around a long time. They lurk upstairs in her paint-spattered studio, downstairs in the living room. They lean against the wall, the piano. They are men in suits, at desks, men on horses.

They are big. They dwell within a narrow band of colors, one overlapping the other. They have no faces because she has decided faces are unnecessary to what she has been trying to do with them.

This Ruth Pettus tried to explain in an "artist's statement" earlier this year: "Initially I was drawn to the image of men wearing suits because the simple, dark shape was exciting as an abstract form. ... In all my work I mean to convey the physicality of the figure, its visceral identity, its essential purpose."

"Originally," she said recently, "people would think it was sort of a critique, just very anti-men, being a woman artist. 'When are you going to paint women in suits?' they'd ask. ... "It's just a painting," sighs the Baltimore painter wearily.

The men-in-suits pictures, when they first appeared in the mid-'80s, brought Ruth Pettus some attention around town. They showed up in nonconventional art venues: restaurants like Mencken's Cultured Pearl, Louie's Bookstore. They'd had an interesting genesis.

Pettus was in London in 1984, pushing her young son around the British Museum, in the same corridors her mother used to drag her and her two brothers and two sisters through, force-feeding them all high culture. She came across some large studies by Raphael, images that were to be woven into a tapestry. It was a line of men in togas.

"I just thought that today they'd be men in suits. Then I thought that would be an interesting exercise."

Fourteen years later, she's still exercising.

Ruth Pettus says she doesn't care what people think about her paintings, but she is mildly defensive when questioned about her continuing preoccupation with the same theme.

"There are many artists who use the same thing over and over again. Matisse used women over and over. Rodin used the human form three-dimensionally over and over."

So she asks, Why can't I use men? Men in suits? Men without suits?

Furthermore, her men are evolving: They are bigger than ever. These new men, Pettus says, "are the most simplified, the colors the most limited" in the 14 years she's explored them. They are all set within deeply textured horizons and terrains that are as distinctive as the primary images themselves.

This heavy texture is intentional, but results as well from her practice of painting over existing works that fail to sell. A large painting she's working on now titled "Three Men" has "six or seven" finished paintings beneath, she says. It's likely that anybody who buys a Pettus canvas is buying more than one picture.

Pettus is 40, tall and sinewy, naturally thin and not beaten down by diets. She has fresh skin of the sort that goes a little pink on the ridges of the facial bones, short hair that is frequently unkempt, with tiny patches missing here and there as a consequence of radiation treatment she had about 13 years ago for a brain tumor. She wears glasses and smiles readily, when there is reason to, not reflexively.

She was born in in New Zealand, close to Wellington, but before she was a year old, her parents moved to London. Her mother was English; her father an American foreign-service officer. She grew up in London, at least to age 14, then the family moved to the arid modernity of Canberra, Australia.

It was in Australia, in high school, that Pettus made a vague decision to be an art restorer and began to take art history courses. They lit up her imagination. "I wanted to be involved in art" is how she puts it. Not making it, but learning about it, or taking care of it.

This taste for art flowered in Australia, but its seed was planted back in England, in the unreceptive mind of a young girl who had just discovered horses.

"All I was interested in was horseflesh," she recalls. "All I wanted to do was ride the horses, muck the horses, take care of the horses."

Not entirely sympathetic to this obsession, her mother sent her and her sister and two brothers off on museum tours. Mom gave quizzes, had them draw things they saw in the museums.

Pettus remembers once seeing an exhibit of Pierre Bonnard's paintings in the National Gallery and being told to copy one. They were all nudes, except for one of flowers. Her sister glommed onto that one. "None of us wanted to paint a nude. We were 10, for God sakes! So I painted a nude. I was so embarrassed. My mother hung it on the wall."

In Australia, at the University of Sydney, Pettus studied art from slides. Then the family moved to Washington, and again she came into proximity to the real thing. Her mother began introducing her to restorers, and others involved with the preservation of works of art.

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