Pettus revisits her men in dark suits

CRITIC'S CORNER

Art

October 12, 2005|By GLENN MCNATT | GLENN MCNATT,SUN ART CRITIC

When Baltimore painter Ruth Pettus first began showing her brooding images of men in dark suits in the late 1980s, many viewers took the New Zealand native's art as a passionate indictment of gender and class inequality or the soul-deadening ethos of corporate conformity.

Though Pettus strenuously resisted the idea her work had any political, sociological or Freudian impetus, such interpretations seemed to stick anyway, and for years she was known primarily as "the painter of men in dark suits" with the same stubborn certainty that Degas was known as a painter of dancers.

Nearly two decades later, Pettus has voluntarily revisited that episode in her career with a thoughtful and thought-provoking retrospective of her men in suits, on view in the restaurant gallery of Sascha's 527 on North Charles Street.

Pettus has hung about a dozen of these large-scale canvases on the cafe's walls, from whence they appear to gaze down benignly on the diners enjoying their meals below.

Today, her men in suits seem not so much icons of patriarchal or corporate oppression as vaguely sympathetic, even tender portrayals of lost youth, innocence and the inevitable disillusionment of advancing age.

In fact, Pettus originally was inspired to create these melancholy figures not out of any ideological agenda but from the simple recognition that images of men in suits were relatively rare in contemporary art, and that the subject offered intriguing possibilities for purely formal investigation.

Her project had its genesis in an exhibition Pettus attended in London, where she was struck by the toga-clad Apostles in a cartoon -- or full-scale preparatory drawing for a painting -- by the Renaissance master Raphael, which depicted an episode from the life of St. Peter.

Gazing on the dignified, fabric-draped figures of Christ's disciples, an impish thought popped into the artist's head:

"If they were alive today, they'd all be wearing suits!"

Pettus' men allude to no religious or political calling. One may imagine them as the hollow men of T.S. Eliot's famous poem or the atomized individuals of sociologist David Riesman's lonely crowd, but they could just as well be someone's dad or uncle. Ultimately, they suggest the uniform they wear is irrelevant to who they are.

Pettus has a second show that is nearly as provocative on the other end of town at Resurgam Gallery in Federal Hill. Promenade is an installation of scores of discarded shoes that the artist has embellished with wax, string, bits of fabric, leather, metal and other junk to create a sort of natural history of the shoe life cycle.

Her radically transformed footwear is arranged on a set of pedestals fashioned from cardboard boxes that have been spray-painted gold.

The arrangement suggests a stately but wry procession of weary humanity tramping along the gallery wall. One might almost be tempted to compare it to a soul's passage through this world of tears, except the gloom is counterbalanced by a luminous series of jewel-like, ink-on-wash drawings mounted above that reassert the stubborn human attachment to the joy of life and the strange but compelling beauty of the world.

Promenade runs through Oct. 30. Resurgam Gallery is at 910 S. Charles St. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday. Call 410-962-0513. Men in Suits runs through Dec. 31. Sascha's is at 527 N. Charles St. Hours are 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m., and 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Wednesday. Open until 11 p.m. Thursday, and until midnight Friday and Saturday. Call 410-539-8880.

glenn.mcnatt@baltsun.com

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.