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Ruth Pastine @ Brian Gross

by David M. Roth

Ruth Pastine’s supersaturated color-field paintings unite two seemingly contradictory characteristics: sensuality and remoteness.  How might that work?  Smashingly well, as it turns out.  The Ojai-based artist blends vertical bands of strong color into gradients that dissolve seamlessly into nameless neutral shades, creating, in the adjacent areas, pools of radiant
Witness 8-S7272 (Red Green), Witness Series, 2016; oil on canvas on custom beveled stretcher; 72 × 72 × 3"
luminosity that seem to have originated from sources other than a human hand.  At first glance you may think you’re looking at a Southern California take on Mark Rothko – i.e. what the Russian émigré turned New Yorker might have done had he become a sun-drenched Angelino — but close examination reveals Pastine’s work to be markedly different, both in concept and execution.  

Where Rothko articulated states of mind, Pastine’s paintings call forth primal states: human life at the very beginning, before inchoate sensory impulses coalesce into thoughts and feelings.  Thus, the most vital parts of these paintings are their blurry edges, the “seams,” where one color melts into another.  They take us back to the liminal state into which we were born, and in it we lose ourselves, becoming engulfed in pure color sensations, the character of which changes according to which shades dominate and how they mingle and subdivide.  It’s something to which Pastine, a longtime student of color theory and nonobjective art, pays very close attention.

Consider two large canvases dominated by hot pink. Pastine keeps them from falling into the realm of eye candy by injecting into them slabs of cement gray. This emphatically non-complementary neutral color forms the midsection of one and the edges of the other, conferring on both a gravity they wouldn’t otherwise have, as well as a frisson that derives from the fact
Witness 5-V9048, (Blue Orange Light), 90 × 48 × 3"
that both paintings share many of the same colors.  They’re laid down in bands of roughly equal width, making it appear as if the paintings are identical when they are not.  It’s a painter’s version of three-card Monty, and it sets up an engaging visual conundrum that activates everything nearby, including, most notably, a 90-inch-tall canvas called Witness 5-V9048 (Blue Orange Light), Witness Series.  In this, pale yellow at the center deliquesces into flaming orange, framed at the edges by bright turquoise.  The effect is mildly incendiary.  Cooler paintings employing a similar color-sequencing scheme hold sway in the nook just off the main gallery space.  They’re rendered in shades of deep blue (with strong dollops of orange) and hark back to Pastine’s previous show here, Mind’s Eye/Sense Certainty Series, in which optical effects bordering on kinetic could be detected. Witness 3-S6060, (Blue Orange Deep), Witness Series, the only one here that exhibits that trait, calls to mind waves seen from a high elevation. 

Overall, in this cycle of paintings, Pastine seems to be dividing colors into fewer sub-dominant shades than before.  I emphasize the word “seems” because my memory of what I saw two years ago in this room is a bit fuzzy.  What I do recall is making a list of all the shades of blue I could name.  It was a long one.  If I repeated that exercise now the list would be shorter.  Not that it matters. The eight works on view titillate the eye and set the mind humming in pretty much the same way they did earlier, the only difference being the register and frequency of said vibrations. 

In keeping with the Supremacist notion of divorcing art from real-world referents, Pastine’s takes as her subject the least tangible thing of all: light.  In this she aligns with James Turrell,
Witness 3-S6060, (Blue Orange Deep), Witness Series, 2016; oil on canvas on custom beveled stretcher; 60 × 60 × 3"
whose most memorable works transform museum spaces into giant light boxes, and with Robert Irwin, whose sculptures, made of synthetic industrial materials, capture light and exude it as if lit from within.  Pastine’s canvases, in their radiation of strong pure color, do much the same thing.  What sets her apart is that she does it with oil paint, which is something no painter, to the best of my knowledge, has ever done. How she does it can only be guessed at.  The works reveal scant evidence of physical contact, so for all we know she could be exhaling powdered pigment across the surfaces.  The warp and weft of the fabric peeking through thin layers of paint certainly give credence to the possibility.  When asked, the artist spills no secrets, revealing only that she uses brushes.

This is a near-perfect show. But I do have one complaint.  Does the title, WITNESS, really need to be in all-caps?  Anyone susceptible to optical enticements of this sort is sure to understand what this exhibit is about.  It needs no bullhorn to summon admirers.  This a riveting display of virtuoso brushwork and mental rigor that takes in large swaths of art history and carries them forward — meaningfully and with deep feeling. 
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Ruth Pastine:“WITNESS” @ Brian Gross Fine Art through February 25, 2017. 

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