MacBethian Landscapes

by Louise Sheldon
       Baltimore artist Ruth Pettus is an abstract painter blessed with an inner vision that she translates to canvas with suggestive intonations rather than blatant statements. Intuitively she moves from one subject to another, concentrating for lengthy periods on one subject until it seems to merge with and become something else.

Artist Ruth Pettus gives fresh meaning to the word "horizon."

       A decade ago Pettus' preferred subject matter was "men in suits," mysterious and fascinating beings whose looming hulks move in or dominate the world around them with vague hand gestures and slight alterations in posture that convey information about moods or situations. Her work in this genre received wide local recognition and has been twice the subject of articles in this column.

       Years before the "men in suits" appeared, this artist had begun as an abstractionist; in fact, all her work has abstract qualities. More recently, the "men in suits" began to appear in vague landscapes. "Eventually the amorphous figures became solitary and gradually faded out," says Pettus. Now she has returned to highly abstracted landscapes. Is this because she recently acquired a dog and is spending more time in the open? It seems more likely that she is driven by an inner force, a sort of engine which moves inexorably in a specific direction.

       Pettus' present work was featured in a show entitled "The Well-Tempered Landscape" at the Resurgam Gallery during December. She states that these abstracted landscapes were inspired, in part, by an exhibition of Japanese paintings of the Edo period. She became fascinated by vertical and horizontal divisions in these works, which she feels add new dimension and subtly influence their content.

       First, the horizon as a central, lateral dividing line tantalized her. She would place a tape across the painting and vigorously paint above it. Then, tape removed, she would add related, perhaps more intense, hues built up with distinct strokes and palpable texture below.

       There are small yellow paintings and small blue paintings with distinct horizons in varying, nuanced tones which speak of different times of day. They are labeled "10 am," "10:30 am," "4 pm," etc. These delightful pieces reflect Pettus' sensitive response to "how light and heat progress in a day," she says.

       There is much more than mere horizon line in these works. Swirls of paint below or intriguing little discrepancies of thick impasto along the horizon line suggest gardens, bushes or even atolls. After visiting her father in Honolulu last year, Pettus reveled in the new colors, the warmth, the scents, the mists of the exotic isles. One perceives in some paintings the introduction of greenish-blue hues that she has never used in her landscapes, which are usually achieved in somber earth tones.

       A moody image entitled "Spit" (a geographic term for a narrow point of land projecting into the water) is painted on canvas, as are all her larger works. In varying shades of gray and black, it reveals a keen sensitivity to color that attests to the influence on her work of the 1950's abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko. But Pettus delights in the use of texture and impasto, which Rothko did not. Sometimes she mixes plaster with paint, but she has also found that wet coffee grounds give soft, but significant shapes to texture. To create ridges she paints with a piece of cardboard or an old brush stiffened with the dried latex house paint she uses (Pettus is allergic to oil paint).

       A hazy landscape composed of undulating sweeps of ochres and grays was painted after a holiday in the Scottish highlands. It evokes a misty scene so Macbethian one senses the impending arrival of the forest of Dunsinane strapped to the backs of Macduff's warriors. A thin red line dividing it vertically in the middle adds a touch of mystery, marking the scene as a gunsight would.

       "Black Post" is a fascinating composition, again in ochres and grays, divided by an emphatically thick black line. One imagines a desolate northern beach in winter seen from a spare shack that barely offers shelter. The artist coyly flips the painting upside down, and strangely the scene metamorphoses into a menacing tidal wave that sucks in the water in front of it before crashing wildly on the flimsy structure in which the viewer cowers. There's power in these paintings which provoke different sensations and different images in every viewer.

       "Fog," with its motley assortment of impasto and texturizing elements formed by plaster, is painted in shades of gray to black. Strangely meaningful, it is reminiscent of representations of walls of prisons and hospitals painted by the contemporary Spanish artist Antonio Tapies.

       Pettus' paintings are mainly unframed and the smaller are unmatted because she likes to show the raw edges where paint clings in interesting ways. Her works have to do with where she has been and what she has experienced in life as well as with the influence of modernists like Matisse and Rothko.

       She is a local painter whom we will continue to watch, for her works have heady impact as personal statements. Nonetheless, I find that I miss in these paintings the intensity of subtle human communication and the strong emotional appeal that Pettus conveyed with her very idiosyncratic "men in suits."

       Resurgam, located at 910 South Charles Street (Tel: 410-962-0513), is a cooperative gallery of which Pettus is a member. The artist teaches at the Jewish Community Center at 5700 Park Heights Avenue.

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This story was published on January 3, 2001.