Lisa Ruyter is the Painterly Equivalent of Filmmakers Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino
A kelly-green sky above lilac and tan topiary, gnarled trees painted the color of gray plaster, a baby-blue footpath cutting through a cemetery dotted with orange and chocolate gravestones. The painting described above is by a gifted young painter named Lisa Ruyter. Choosing style over the demands narrative realism makes on her subject matter, Ruyter's work borrows a page from The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, a largely fictional, sometimes autobiographical book. In it Warhol sums up his own affectlessness while posing what is the chief, 21st-century, post-Pop painterly conundrum: "During the 60s," he wrote, "I think, people forgot what emotions were supposed to be. And I don't think they've ever remembered. I think that once you see emotions from a certain angle you can never think of them as real again. That's what more or less has happened to me."
Lisa Ruyter makes large, pancake-flat, artificially colored paintings that have as their starting point her own snapshots of urban landscapes. Bristling with Pop's skepticism of the unmediated, unadvertised life, she projects negatives of her photographs onto monochrome canvases, then traces them with black magic marker. Filling in the clearly defined areas with clashing product colors, Ruyter intuitively negotiates painting-by-painting truces between three main influences: Warhol's emotional cool, a Fauve-like penchant for the handling of hot color and hard-edged, formal abstraction.
The results, on view this month at Leo Koenig, Inc., are as good-looking as they are stylistically idiosyncratic. Substantive eye-candy, Ruyter's work leans toward content even as it embraces the popular, ever-fashionable "love of look." Ruyter's newest exhibition, titled "Imitation of Life" after a 1959 pulp film of the same name, consists of 11 paintings, all based on photographs taken on trips to famous cemeteries in the U.S. and Europe (including Brompton Cemetery in London, Pere Lachaise in Paris and Boothill Graveyard in Tombstone). Ruyter's cemeteries are gimlet-eyed reinterpretations of genre, candy-colored renditions of the morbidly familiar and as vibrantly colored as a trip to a Mexican supermarket. Her work establishes her, along with a reduced company of young artists, as the painterly equivalent of filmmakers Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino.
Ruyter's pieces contain echoes of the styles of artists like David Hockney and Alex Katz, and put one in the mind of the Briton's strategic dictum: "style is something you can use, and you can be like a magpie, taking what you want." Taking a now ubiquitous paint-by-numbers style from Warhol and children's coloring books, Ruyter sharply outlines her paintings in black to drive home a cartoon look, gaining a further remove from the grave, putative subject matter of her latest work.
A painting like The Hole, for example, is typical Ruyter. The green, orange, yellow and gray canvas speaks volumes, but not about the scene it represents?an anonymous, faceless crowd surrounding the grave of chanteuse Edith Piaf. Instead, it is the painting's muted, warmly colored depiction that produces the work's visual impact while, at the same time, dampening its dramatic content. Another painting, Out of the Past, presents a nutshell version of Ruyter's painting in a single detail. Featuring an inverted version of a mausoleum inscription (the words "Famille Duamy"), the painting literally renders a mirror image of Ruyter's captured reality. She treats her canvases like photographic negatives, reversing the order of lights and darks in her canvases, casting the funereal realism of Pere Lachaise in lively brick red, sky blue and mustard yellow and divulging the photographic source of her images in the process.
The titles of Ruyter's paintings, unlike straight indications of narrative content, mask yet another use of genre. She borrows titles from movies or books, locating her work within a wider, more fully contemporary context of imagemaking, cueing the viewer to connections between the paintings and other methods of mechanical reproduction. Take the paintings Gardens of Stone and The Fountainhead. The first, a large, handsome canvas in signature Ruyter style and palette, nearly beckons a befrocked Max von Sydow from its Exorcist-like scene. The latter, a tilted, heavily cropped view of statuary dedicated to the French painter Ingres, promotes a secondary reading of its content, veiled in this case by references to photography, film, literature and art history.
Claiming kinship to the great French stylist and painter of superrealist portraits avant la lettre, Ruyter also invokes Ingres as a way of justifying her ambivalence to psychological truth and her penchant for raising style itself to the level of content. She rarely depicts human faces except as flat areas of color, and only two paintings in her present show have people in them. Detached from them as subjects, Ruyter's visitors to her affectless cemeteries turn their backs to the viewer, abstracted yet of a piece with their surroundings like so much stone or cement statuary (which Ruyter invariably paints with greater attention to detail). A record of what is essentially a tourist's journey through some of the world's great burial places, she transfers to her poppy-colored paintings Susan Sontag's powerful line about photography: "All photographs are memento mori."
"Lisa Ruyter: Imitation of Life," through March 10 at Leo Koenig, Inc., 359 Broadway (betw. Franklin & Leonard Sts.), 334-9255.
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