New YorkAndrew Kreps Gallery
June 25 – August 14, 2015
Each of the seven paintings in Ruth Root’s most recent show consists of two conjoined parts: 1) a larger angular geometric piece of Plexiglas covered with patterns executed in spray paint and enamel; and 2) a smaller, albeit still sizeable, fabric component also covered with patterns, this time printed digitally onto the fabric. Attached to the Plexiglas via grommets, hinges, and snaps, the fabric portion often juts out and away from the rest of the piece. In every work, the digital patterns playfully riff on some aspect of the whole while marking a departure from the painted section. Take, for instance, the first Untitled work to the viewer’s left. In the digitally printed elements, repeated photographs of what appear to be cream-colored tufts of rug loosely echo the build-up of smaller, clean-edged white and black-sprayed dots. Attached to its painted counterpart by grommets and a beautiful triangular fold over a hinge built into the Plexiglas, the fabric becomes a simultaneously integral element as well as something that could easily be removed by undoing a few seamless origami-like tucks.
As much painting as modular component, these large, body-sized pieces look almost as if they could be used around the house; or even as a house. While some of the pieces call to mind the shapes of dwellings—the obvious candidate being the second triangular tepee-like work—others appear as though they would be more comfortable on the floor than the wall. This is in no way to relegate the work to the decorative. In fact one of the most interesting aspects of Root’s new works (far beyond any art historical reference to minimalism) is precisely their getting away from the decorative. They are not themselves “domestic” per se, but have a habitable quality about them—almost in the vein of Hélio Oiticica’s “parangolés,” which people wore, danced in, and experienced as mobile structures; or along the lines of some of Alan Shields’s paintings. While Root’s paintings deviate from the ephemeral nature and material flexibility of Oiticica’s or Shields’s, they suggest a similar ability to be “lived-in.”
With their pitch-perfect prefab feel, the paintings’ scale and angularity seem to know our measurements and the measurements of our daily routines—how we sit, sleep, and rest; how we divide our time. It’s as if Root’s paintings already possess a sense of us, a sense of what and how we’ll use them even before we’re there. One could argue that many prefabricated materials and enclosures possess that same kind of “sense.” One could also argue, however, that the problem with prefab is precisely that many of these manufactured structures only presume to know us. There are scores of lonely, hypnotic, prefab spaces to fill here in 2015—shopping malls, casinos, gymnasiums, airports, supermarkets, Instagram accounts. Each postulates a different set of insights into our habits and rituals, but foregoes any discussion of loneliness in favor of amplifying the comfort of communal collectivity. This is where Root’s newest paintings pick up.
A great tug-of-war occurs between the almost wallpaper-like feel of the patterns and something more critical that wants to wake us up from the spaced out, glazed-over comfort of this padded state. On the one hand, the repetition of data blips or screensaver-like flows in Ruth’s patterns reinforces an ongoing stream of hallucinatory information in which we get lost. Their hypnotic motion and reoccurring stripes and dots wash over us, lulling us to sleep. On the other hand, the jarring tension between the hand-made and the printed, as well as the marriage of sprayed and painted lines with the more unlikely, and sometimes humorous, digital patterns, breaks that flow. One standout work comes to mind, with its bright yellow flap of fabric coming off the top. It is not just that the color scheme breaks from the household whites, creams, beiges, reds, and maroons of the painted section, but, moreover, that the digital graphics parade as a monstrous hybrid of slot machine images, or densely packed emoticons sprung from Root’s own paintings redoubled. In these works the very language of say, slot machine graphics, or the rows and rows of the systematized loneliness of Home Depot, is played upon and exposed.
In Walter Benjamin’s famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” he writes that “painting is simply in no position to present an object for simultaneous collective experience.” For Benjamin in the early 20th century, painting as an art form insufficiently responded to the mechanical age, to the crowds, to the metropolis. But perhaps now, early in the 21st century, we need painting again, a type of painting that responds to the collective manufacturing of space and time by using the very mechanisms of pre-assembled units. The fact that Root’s new paintings look as if they possess potential use value outside of solely aesthetic consumption, the fact that they break the hypnotic drone of prefabricated structures and images by employing that very language, drastically changes the way we mentally and physically interact with the medium.
One of the disadvantages of a prefab structure is that leaks can occur at the joints. Weather seeps in between slabs. Root is wondrous when it comes to joints. The generously open and exposed hinges in her Plexiglas segments celebrate the paintings’ delicate assembly. The fabric folds over and through, but leaves plenty of wall to be viewed. Perhaps leaks are exactly what we need in a world overpopulated with immense, purportedly airtight, systematized enclosure. Tuned out, adrift, we need escape routes, exit strategies to alter the logic of these sites. Root’s new paintings are full of just that: nap time, future time; IKEA time, tent time; screen time, face time; no time, sale time; game time, next time; down time, go time; big time, out of time.
Anthony Hawley is a multidisciplinary artist and writer. Recent solo projects were presented by the Salina Art Center; CounterCurrent in partnership with the Menil Collection & Aurora Picture Show; and Spazju Kreattiv in Malta. He is the author of two full-length collections of poetry, and a forthcoming artist book A Book of Spells. Along with violinist Rebecca Fischer, he forms one half of The Afield, a performance collaboration for violin, video, electronics, and more. He teaches in the Hunter College MFA Studio Art Program.