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From the Exhibition Catalogue


"Man, Horse, Landscape"

I pictured to myself... a man in the grip of a long daydream, in absolute solitude. but a solitude with an immense horizon and widely diffused light: in other words, immensity with no other setting than itself."
- Charles Baudelaire

In the optical democracy of such landscapes all preference is made whimsical and a man and a rock become endowed with unguessed kinships.
- Cormac McCarthy

The relationship between figure and landscape is a subject as old as art itself and is one of Ruth Pettus' primary concerns. Often, her figures are alone, isolated in a portentous space. They have a brooding mass, and a dark physical and psychological presence that is reflected by the emptiness that surrounds them. In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard contends that "immensity is an intimate dimension," and that "...through their 'immensity' ... the space of intimacy and the world space blend. When human solitude deepens, then the two immensities touch and become identical."

In Pettus' paintings the figures and the void-like landscape are one; they are linked by a dramatic unity, the space mirroring the figures' psyches and vice-versa, in an endless transference of signification. Bachelard also sees correspondences between the inner life of humans ands the vastness of a desert landscape and suggests that through a synthesis of opposites (the internal and the external) we can experience concentration of wandering. "The desert must lived the way it is reflected in the wanderer."

Pettus's painting, "Wanderer," (1998) is a perfect example of this. In it, the landscape is defined not only through its expanse, but also be the power and the silhouette of the man's body and the strength and the curve of his back. The gray-yellow sky bears down upon the slightly hunched figure, but the gesture of the man's back seems to support and generate the weight of the space around him.

This dually casual relationship is expressed formally through the rough application of paint that makes both figure and landscape form one agitated surface. The kinship between the immense and the intimate is also visible in the scale of Pettus' paintings; whether small, such as "Three Figures" (1999, 14" x 14"), or large as "Wanderer" (1998, 72" x 66"), the sensation of endless space remains the same.

The French poet Charles Baudelaire included movement in the category of vastness, and movement is key in Pettus' work. Her figures are nomads, wanderers in a mythic space. They meld with the world just as Clint Eastwood's lone rider from High Plains Drifter emerges from a shimmering and abstracted landscape, born of earth and light. In paintings such as "Horse, Rider and Landscape" (1998) and "Figure in a Gray Landscape" (1999), the space of the picture plane is only the beginning; it incorporates the opposing movements of upward and outward, creating a sense of the sublime.

In "Figure with Black Stripe" (1999), there is an equality of sky and land that expresses the earth and the ethereal. The idea of wandering in this painting is suggested less by the gesture of the figure itself, but rather by the glowing band of yellow at the horizon and a lighter vertical wash of paint that seem to pull the figure toward the future.

Movement in Pettus' work is manifested through the medium itself; her style is expressionistic and gestural. She uses thick, aggressive strokes of paint that create slashes and ridges of texture on the surface of the canvas.

painting In "Runner" (1999), the lone figure is highlighted by a faint trace of red that gives him a palpitating aura and seems to propel him forward in his trajectory across the brown landscape.

Movement and gesture function as abstraction and distillation in Pettus' painting, and the setting of immensity is an abstraction come true. "In all my work i mean to convey the physicality of the figure, its visceral identity, its essential purpose," she says.

Pettus has been a singer and a performer as well as a painter, and has a deep interest in rhythm and movement. As a consequence, her work is inspired as much by the theater and dance as it is by painting, sculpture and photography. In March of 1998, Pettus saw a one-man performance entitled Monster, by the Toronto-based group da da Kamera, during which the actor's shadow was cast behind him onto a screen. This shadow became an overpowering presence on the stage, and as a result, the men in Pettus' paintings became larger and more abstract, a pure visual reflection of that performance. Representational detail seeped out of her paintings until she was left with silhouettes whose beings are expressed through pure gesture.

Dance-like qualities have become more prominent in her most recent work. Still using the subject of figure and landscape, Pettus sees her "Piazza Series" as a kind of installation where she acts as choreographer and painter. She directs the movements of her figures on the stage of the canvas in a manner reminiscent of Pieter Bruegal in paintings like "Winter Landscape, February."

The space of the "Piazza Series" is generally warmer, suggesting the open Venetian skies of Canaletto's public spaces or the golden light of Seurat's "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grande-Jatte." Unified by the open space, Pettus' figures skate, run, bend and perform handstands across the surface of the canvas. They seem to be participants in a Merce Cunningham ballet of pedestrian movements, with the random patterns of their activities creating a sense of simultaneous proximity and separation that exists in the streets and public places of modern (and ancient) cities.

Studying "Piazza III" (1999), it is possible to see the influence of many sources: there are figures from the sports page, Canaletto gondoliers, and the inhibitants of Seurat's "Bathers at Asnieres." This is a fine expression of theater, a word that derives from the Greek thea, the act of seeing, and which demonstrates Pettus' loves of both looking and performance.

A different form of theatrical presentation is visible in another recent series of small landscapes on paper. In many of these paintings, Pettus incorporates a dark frame on either edge of the paper, which providesw a stage-like entrance into the image.

painting By funneling the usual vastness of her landscapes through a window frame, we become acutely aware of the idea of space; there is a tension between the finite and the infinite, the interior and the exterior.

Pettus began making these images in early 1999 while visiting her father in Hawaii. Entering through the back door of her father's house, one is plunged into darkness, but for the bright window at the end of the hall which reveals bands of sky, sea, hedge and grass. There is a sense of peering at the world through binoculars, an almost simultaneous contraction and expansion of the space.

The colors in these small landscapes are bright, and the paint is applied more smoothly, the strokes of the brush creating glimmers of light on bloody-red or placid green water. In places, the paint gently bleeds into the paper forming what looks like trees on the edge of the earth. Sometimes, a thin, black band appears to hover above the horizon, suggesting the presence of an unearthly plain; an allusion perhaps to Japanese prints of the Edo period called Ukiyo-e, or "pictures of the floating world."

In Pettus' paintings, this floating world is perhaps the space of immensity where body, soul and horizon collide.

- Laura Burns
Exhibitions Director
Rosenberg Gallery
Goucher College, Baltimore, Maryland