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Greg S. Flood


Art Writing

‘MIND'S EYE / Sense Certainty Series’ – Ruth Pastine at Brian Gross Fine Art

Ruth Pastine 'Red Green 2-S4848 (Magenta Violet), Sense Certainty Series', 2014, oil on canvas (48 x 48 inches); (Courtesy of Brian Gross Fine Art)

In the world of objects, the quantity available today is staggeringly large, and ever increasing. So much of what is produced, particularly in the world of art objects, is alien to and alienated from the human experience, while contradictorily reflecting and derived from that experience. In this state, the ability to engage the viewer at a level beyond pure mental gymnastics, if at all, is almost impossible, even for those fully engaged in keeping track of what is happening in the ‘art world’.

It is no wonder then that so many people walk in and out of galleries, art fairs, and museums in utter bewilderment about what they have seen. A titanic shift in the nature of art (it began 50 or so years ago) has taken hold and is wielding its power to greater effect in museums and galleries, through curators, academia, and artists, and most importantly through the market. I speak, of course, of art where the idea behind the work, whatever it may be, is more important than the execution of it, especially in the sense of physically producing an object. – ‘Conceptualism’. Though many would limit conceptualism to the era of the late 1960s – 1970s, its legacy is alive and well, and it is certainly killing it today in the realm of influence.

Ruth Pastine 'Blue Orange 4-S4848 (Blue Violet), Sense Certainty Series', 2014, oil on canvas (48 x 48 inches); (Courtesy of Brian Gross Fine Art)

The interesting thing is that this shift to ‘the idea as paramount’ is only the latest turn in one of the oldest debates in western aesthetics, which has been going on since at least the Renaissance, though perhaps further back. As any student of the Italian Renaissance will tell you, there were two schools of thought as to how a painting should be composed. Painters from Florence and Rome followed a set of rules about the structure of composition and they muted their colors to give the structure prominence – the concept was more important essentially. On the other side of the debate were the Venetians, for whom structure was important, but equally if more important was the use of sumptuous colors that simultaneously seduce us and heighten the emotional drama of the scene depicted. This argument has since been reduced down to the simple phrase: ‘form versus color’.

Over the centuries this debate has continued, with a more recent example being that of Picasso and Matisse. These two paragons of early 20th century modern art split with each other over this exact debate. Picasso came out on the side of form and Matisse came out on the side of color (though Picasso later embraced color too). The next time we see a split of this kind is in the abstract expressionist movement. Pollock, De Kooning, and a number of the AbEx painters of the era were so into the theory of flatness that the colors they chose were muted so as to not get in the way. One exception to this rule (and there are others) was Mark Rothko, with his expansive fields of color with their soft edges between them.

Ruth Pastine 'Red Green 3-S4848 (Red Magenta), Sense Certainty Series', 2014, oil on canvas (48 x 48 inches); (Courtesy of Brian Gross Fine Art)

There is even a split between the art of the East Coast and the West Coast in the US, with the west most certainly on the side of color. What does this have to do with the work of Ruth Pastine, one might ask? Well, quite a bit actually. Pastine has been making paintings of color gradations for well over 20 years, using the most supple and sensuously addictive tones one can imagine. Without any doubt, there is no question as to where her allegiances lie.

Her current show ‘MIND'S EYE / Sense Certainty Series’ at Brian Gross Fine Art is a departure from where she was before. Not to worry, the colors haven’t lost any of their luster, rather the way she structures them has changed. Instead of radiating gradations of color oozing across her canvases from one spot outward, Pastine has instead employed the structural device of using only vertical bands of color on her current canvases. Employing this rule and meticulously gradating her colors, Pastine has created a sense of space in her canvases unlike any she has achieved before.

Ruth Pastine 'Blue Orange 3-S4848 (Blue Deep), Sense Certainty Series', 2014, oil on canvas (48 x 48 inches); (Courtesy of Brian Gross Fine Art)

Take ‘Red Green 3-S4848 (Red Magenta), Sense Certainty Series’, 2014 for example. Moving from intense reddish orange in the center to bands of deep magenta on either edge, Pastine creates an environment in the mind’s eye that plays with us. At once both a column of red and an entrance to a world of red in a wall of purple, the paint plays with us, toying with our sense of presence and suspending us in a void of uncertainty. This sense of suspension is heightened by her choice to bevel the edges of the canvas, leaving the painted surface to float in front of the wall, a portal from this world into another. The same is true of the other five paintings in the show.

Of equal importance in this work is the power they exert over us. These aren’t dumb paintings sitting on the wall waiting to be watched. They come and get us from across the length of the gallery. The three paintings in red all make one feel a sense of warmth on one’s skin. The three in deep shades of blue reach out from their inky depths to coolly envelope us. I came back to see them twice, and each time I could still feel their magnetic power on me when I turned away from them, and even after I left the gallery all together. They have stayed with me ever since.

Ruth Pastine 'Blue Orange 14-S6060 (Violet Deep Blue), Interplay Series', 2013, oil on canvas (60 x 60 inches); (Courtesy of Brian Gross Fine Art)

Like a Rothko, these paintings separate us from the world we are in, leaving us in a space where we are left only to face ourselves and reflect on our deepest emotions. If this sounds unnerving, it can be. What is important here, though, is Pastine’s ability to illicit this level of response. The power deployed in her work to give so human an experience, something that touches the soul, is what will make these works continue to sustain their presence in the annals of art long after we ourselves have gone.

Born in New York and now living in Southern California, Pastine’s work draws its strengths from both worlds. The ties to the lineage of Matisse and Rothko are readily apparent in her mastery of the use of color. Her ties to the traditions of Southern California lie in the Light and Space movement, whose achievement was this kind of palpable sense of space created through illusions by the work, though she is achieving this through paint as opposed to other materials. This synthesis of traditions has created a body of work that stands as the next argument in the debate over form versus color. But, at the heart of their existence, they are much more than that and they certainly won’t let us forget it.

‘MINDS EYE: Sense Certainty Series’ is on view at Brian Gross Fine Art through October 25, 2014. 248 Utah Street, San Francisco, CA 94103; 415.788.1050; Tues-Wed, Fri-Sat: 11-6pm, Thursday 11-7. For more information about Ruth Pastine CLICK HERE.

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