by Renny Pritikin
In the late 1930s, the British nature writer T.H. White—an experienced outdoorsman—decided to train a goshawk, the most intransigent, independent, large raptor there is. He had no experience and relied on an outdated 17th-century guidebook. Weeks of frustration and failure followed because he had no idea what was possible. Fortunately, for Ruth Laskey, a painter working with weaving, her trip into the unknown has been vastly more successful. She, too, had to come to terms with what was possible and learn how she could embed images directly into linen weaving. Her current exhibition of 22 works at Ratio 3 in San Francisco, executed over the last three years, demonstrates a rare form of mastery in contemporary art.
Each work, about three by two feet, is hand-woven on a floor loom from hand-dyed linen thread. The fields are off-white, with colorful forms, usually centered. The works are fixed onto a mat, leaving about a two-inch border. The first seven pieces we encounter (2021) feature variations on a theme: a flat, five-color object that floats at eye-level with different hues huddled together. Each of the colored sections has between six and 12 edges. Laskey incorporates several different colors into the weave to make these works, making sure that the colors assume shapes in a complex sequence as she moves across the warp, which is probably not what someone who “knew better” would attempt.
A good analogy would be the distinction between photographers and artists who work with photography, an example being Cindy Sherman. A similar distinction can be made for Laskey’s practice of being a painter utilizing hand dyeing and weaving as a form of methodical painterly practice. In the exquisite catalog accompanying the exhibition, an uncredited essay describes the twill — the weaving technique she utilizes in the dyed areas — as “a brushstroke built into a picture plane.”
Aggregate 2 consists of green, blue, golden yellow, and salmon-colored shapes, with a brown “chimney” on top. These colors are subtly suffused with white thread: the effect is assertive and ghostly. Aggregate 6 shows a purple “lake” surrounded by blue, golden yellow, beige and salmon “plains.” By the time we enter the next section of the exhibition, where earlier works from 2020 are on view, our eye is conditioned to expect a subdued experience. Thus, these earlier works seem dramatic, even though they’re quite
restrained. Each features a central shield-shaped form pierced by a smaller white shape, such as a Y, a keyhole or baseball home plate. These have only two colors besides white: one outlines the white forms, and the other fills the shield. However, the color that fills the shield is graduated, lightest at the top to darkest at the bottom. This two-color juxtaposition causes the white form to recede into knee-buckling depth. Six earlier works from 2019 are quite different. Each has interconnected shapes linked by thick lines in contrasting colors. Each triangle, ball, or square has an “empty” white center. These pieces, in contrast to the newer pieces’ meditative elusiveness, feel confident, totemic and iconic.
Given the planning and meticulous execution required, it takes Laskey around a month to create each of these works. This effort reveals both discipline and a perfectionist streak. Some artists believe they cannot take credit for making a work of art unless they have created every possible part of it. I think of the late Alan Rath, who insisted on fabricating and programming every aspect of his digital sculptures. Laskey’s desire to exert similar control dates to her decision to weave the linen she previously used to execute traditional paintings. That decision led her to realize she could let the application of paint fall by the wayside and make the linen itself be the image. The resulting bodies of work she has produced over the past decade might be unique in the art world; they certainly are an undeniable source of sophisticated, challenging visual pleasure.
# # #
Ruth Laskey: “Twill Series” @ Ratio 3 through July 24, 2021.
About the author:
Renny Pritikin was the chief curator at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco from 2014 to 2018. Prior to that, he was the director of the Richard Nelson Gallery at UC Davis and the founding chief curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts beginning in 1992. For 11 years, he was also a senior adjunct professor at California College of the Arts, where he taught in the graduate program in Curatorial Practice. Pritikin has given lecture tours in museums in Japan as a guest of the State Department, and in New Zealand as a Fulbright Scholar, and visited Israel as a Koret Israel Prize winner. The Prelinger Library published his new book of poems, Westerns and Dramas, in 2020.