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Looking over a group of my paintings a few years ago, a friend pointed out her favorite and told me she preferred it because it was “the least ingratiating — it seems indifferent to my response.” This curious critical metric, since then lodged in my brain, proves useful when thinking about an exhibition like Gina Ruggeri’s spectacular solo show at Nancy Margolis Gallery, on view through April 1.
The show includes 11 abstract, robustly chromatic works — paintings, essentially — in acrylic and ink on vaguely rectilinear expanses of fabric that are collaged together from smaller bits and pieces. This is quite a change: just a few years ago, Ruggeri’s paintings were highly illusionistic, restrained in palette, on irregularly shaped pieces of Mylar. Attached flat against the gallery wall, they ruptured those white expanses with jarring, slightly creepy depictions of decay — or at least, of surrealistic incongruity: enormous cracks and crevasses opening up to some unfathomable depth; grotto-like cavities growing inexplicably into space; puffy (if oddly weighty) clouds floating near the ceiling.
Intelligently conceived and beautifully realized, these paintings implied a wide-ranging critique of the tenuous nature of shelter, the ongoing crumbling of infrastructure, and the precariousness of real estate markets and maybe even the gallery system itself.
Beginning around 2012, Ruggeri’s work underwent a shift, then an overhaul, then something like a transformation. The exhibition’s press release is mum on all this, other than to say that she “made a conscious decision to forgo her earlier painting process in search of a new language.” (In a video interview with Nancy Margolis that plays in the gallery’s viewing room, Ruggeri explicitly links these changes to her experience with surfaces and situations other than the pristine walls of conventional exhibition spaces.)
The “language” may be new, but the underlying strategy is unchanged: to win over the viewer, through the sheer force and scale of commitment to a method. Of course, many artists go for the “wow factor,” a conspicuous abundance of something or other (as in technical skill; fulsome color; procedural complexity; an enormous quantity of some weird material). In any case, if the appeal of illusionism is rooted at least in part in beguiling the viewer with a seamless display of traditional technique, that approach remains intact in many of Ruggeri’s new paintings. She seems intent, still, on dazzling the viewer.
And dazzle she does, in works such as “Patchwork Infinitum” (120-by-117 inches; all works acrylic and ink on cloth, 2016 unless noted), an ambitious and beautiful collage-painting of enormous formal energy. Hanging curtain-like from a single horizontal crossbar, it is a wildly exuberant collection of incidents and effects, distinct passages grafted onto one another in a glorious profusion of blots, dots, curlicues, serpentine lines, billowing clusters of pod shapes, and slithering teardrops.
Most of the cloth seems fairly lightweight — muslin, maybe — but the surface sheen belies an adhesive- or medium-heavy process that would considerably stiffen the fabric. Underlying the composition is the hint of a grid, but that structure seems to emerge organically from joining the constituent yardage rather than from any particular affection for that emblem of modernism. Little pictorial dramas unfold here and there, much like a crowd scene in a Bruegel painting.
There is a lot to like in the teeming “Purple Remnants” (61-by-42 inches), including a delicious contrast between saturated spectral colors and a translucent grayish mesh; the visual flavor is floral, though no flower is depicted. A commanding presence, “Quips and Gripes (Strips and Stripes)” (93-by-65 inches) is organized around a high-value-contrast, horizontal band of parallel stripes that spans the picture plane from side to side — a compositional move that is rare among these works. A dominant, decisive swath of crimson distinguishes “Embedded Red” (67-by-83 inches), asserting itself as figure in relationship to the surrounding ground.
At the small end of the size spectrum, but no less riotous, is “There Isn’t There” (35-by-40 inches). Shoehorned in among the bumptious shapes in this bustling work are snippets of straightforward drawing, in particular a twisting, ribbon-like band that sometimes doubles back on itself like a baroque Möbius strip. If Ruggeri uses the motif to hint at the interplay of two- and three-dimensional space, she thereby directs our attention to the all-important physical space — about three inches deep — between these suspended paintings and the wall behind them. After that, there’s no missing the import of the negative, cut-out shapes that punctuate many of these paintings.
Two other painters who have hung complex abstract canvases from a single horizontal crossbar are Al Loving and Terence La Noue. Loving’s 1970s dyed-fabric constructions have a scruffy, rags-and-patches informality that only heightens their elegance; La Noue qualifies his paintings’ sumptuous palette and overall visual gregariousness by way of encrusted, willfully unlovely surfaces. Both artists ramped up their works’ tactility and physicality, keeping decorativeness in check; Ruggeri has done something similar in at least three paintings in this exhibition.
These works are the most recent, according to the gallery. They are tougher, less solicitous about our opinion or eager for our approval. Like the artist’s earlier paintings on Mylar, they are attached directly to the wall, but illusionism is banished completely; the pictorial space is flattened, reduced to the physical depth of the fabric’s conspicuous wrinkles and bulges. With its rumpled disk of black amid a patterned field of subtly varied greens and a neutralized orange, “No Recall” (2017, 71-by-43 inches) is relatively simple, even reductive. If “Patchwork Infinitum” is a run-on paragraph, “No Recall” is a simple declarative sentence; if the former evokes an enormous, detailed map, the latter looks more like a flag.
“Casting: Clinging” (67-by-64 inches) also operates according to overt figure/ground relationships, the ground here being a yard or two of camouflage-print cotton in a range of greens and browns. (The presence of the white, unprinted margin along the top edge, at the end of the bolt, might be a funny nod to “truth to materials.”) A few crumpled bits of cloth, painted with patterns of ovals, spots and dots, are arrayed across it, stuck to the surface presumably with acrylic medium. Their placement might seem arbitrary until you notice just how exquisitely they interact with each other and with the camo ground.
These offer a different, more complex order of aesthetic experience, requiring more work on the viewer’s part; rather than let it wash over us, we must approach the object on its terms, meet it halfway. “Shrunken Red” (2017, 62-by-51 inches) uses one of painting’s primary conventions, a rectangular shape, to counter the visual mayhem unfolding across its surface: frantic doodles emerge from behind clotted swatches of crumpled fabric, blooms of dark green and indigo that push aside washes of yellow and blue. An actual ribbon-like strip of twisted cloth puts in an appearance as if claiming its rightful place among Ruggeri’s lexicon of shapes. “Shrunken Red” goes for broke, flirts with chaos. Looking at it involves a different sort of delectation than does the poised and smoothly functioning “Patchwork Infinitum,” or the precisely calibrated “There Isn’t There.” But “Shrunken Red” doesn’t really care.
Frank Stella is relevant, of course, to any discussion of the dark side of the decorative; it seems to me he subverts his works’ eye-candy potential with the chilliness of industrial fabrication — and sheer size. “Decorative with a vengeance” is how someone once described Stella’s production during the 1980s, and the phrase captures the passive-aggressiveness that gives that work its bite. Though Ruggeri’s work is very different from Stella’s, it raises the issue of what kind of relationship a viewer expects to have with an artwork, on a spectrum ranging from easy familiarity to mutual animosity.
In Whit Stillman’s 1994 comedy Barcelona, protagonist Ted Boynton (“deeply into sales”) describes “Maneuver X,” an advanced technique by which the salesman resorts to “removing all pressure” on the prospective customer, thus “creating a space that the customer has to affirmatively cross.” A willfully indifferent artwork can exert a similar pressure; many of Steven Parrino’s later paintings, for example, have a take-it-or-leave-it bluntness that, while unsettling, is unexpectedly seductive. Ruggeri seems to be increasingly comfortable making uncomfortable work, leveraging one of painting’s paradoxes to her great benefit.
Gina Ruggeri continues at Nancy Margolis Gallery (523 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 1.