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The Baltimore Chronicle

painting

"If the Shoe Fits..."

If Bertolt Brecht had been a cobbler instead of a playwright, his shoes might have looked like those made by Ruth Pettus, currently on view at the Resurgam Gallery. Using equal parts savagery, pathos and mordant wit, this artist surgically dissects and reconstructs men's worn leather shoes, and in the process creates a touching meditation on the human condition.

Ruth Pettus is a painter, regionally known for her large-scale, dark and enigmatic portraits of anonymous men in business suits. Those works are typically rendered in thick layers of black and umber paint, their surfaces crusted and opaque. For this new work, she has changed media and scale, but her pallette remains the same. Using the shoe as canvas, she substitutes tar and mud for pigment, embeds seeds, stones and sticks in the viscous surfaces, and wraps the whole in gauze or broken glass.

In contemporary figurative art, a significant fragment of a figure can represent the whole person. The modern museum-goer has grown accustomed to seeing exhibitions of Roman portrait heads, torsos of Greek gods and goddesses, and the heads, hands or feet of pharaohs and Egyptian deities. A human essence is still detectable in these fragments.

In recent times, the Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz has created a hand of fiber and twine - her mother's hand shot off by Nazis in World War II. New York artist Kiki Smith has created life-sized hollow paper skins which mimic the fragility of the human envelope.

In the installation at Resurgam Gallery, Ruth Pettus extrapolates a human being from each shoe. Cognizant of shoe anatomy, she cuts out "tongues," amputates "toes," flays "heels" and punctures eyelets.

The part stands for the whole; the shoe is the foot and the foot, the human being. The violent actions performed on the shoes - which are impaled, stretched, gagged and bound (but also veiled and bandaged) - attest to the violence man has perpetrated on his fellow man since time began.

In works like "Plantation," and "Post," the torture of prisoners and slaves is evoked. In "Marne" and "Spike," and others, a pole driven into the mouth of the shoe, perpendicular to its sole, recreates the wasted shins and ruined feet of infantrymen in all wars - a tragic histoire du soldat.Many works bear travelers' names: "Hannibal," "Ulysses," "Marco," "Hermes."

The shoes are crafted with the stuff of the road - the asphalt, the stones, the concrete webbing. So the journey is embodied in the foot itself. The arduousness of the human journey from prehistory to the present time is evoked in "L'uomo" and "Sumer." The artist's inspiration for these pieces comes from the discovery of the "5,000 year-old man" found in Appennines in 1991.

The textures of "First Shoe," "Tower i" and "Tower II," slathered with tar and plastered with sticks, are reminiscent of the peat bogs where other remnants of early man were found. In creating these elongated feet, skin-wrapped and strapped, the artist established an intimate bond between ourselves and those ancient archetypes. We metaphorically walk in another's shoes.

There are also numerous wall pieces which explore the lyrical and organic forms of shoes, without the visceral overtones of the freestanding pieces. "Madeline," "Conversation," "Landscape" and "Nino are examples of these. In "Nino" the curved black leather shapes jumble and nest against one another. They create lively rhythms and pictorial space which echo, in miniature, DeKooning's black and white paintings of the late 1940's. In "Landscape" and in "Conversation," the stitched and punched edges read as draw lines.

Tongue-in-cheek works like "Hermes" and "Giorgio" mock the use of shoes and the seriousness of these works. "hermes," with its rusted, blade-like winged heel, connotes the fashion label as well as the Greek messenger of the gods. "Giorgio," suggests Armani, a joke, a mock Italian fashion statement.

In "Bowl" and "Wedding" the artist establishes a dialogue between shoes. "Bowl" is a clunky leather vessel created when two slip-on shoes are surgically joined. "Wedding" juxtaposes two shoes (a pair) in a steel lattice, and we suddenly realize that most of the works in the show are solitary examples.

These works are closer in spirit to the sculptures of Mario Merz and the 'arte povere' movement then they are to the stiletto heel assemblages of Willie Cole, shown last year in Baltimore at the Contemporary's "Labor of Love" show. Cole's work bristled with manic energy, and used dozens of high heels as sculptural elements - much as he used hair dryers - to form new pieces: thrones and masks.

Ruth Pettus eviscerates her shoes, scrutinizes their membranous layers and their previously closed interiors, then bandages them or pins their wings like butterflies. They are not running shoes, or hiking boots, but portraits of the human condition. Perhaps the shoes are road gear for a slow, shambling dance of death in a forest which exists already in the huge root-like sculptures of Petah Coyne.

Lea Feinstein
The Baltimore Chronicle