A recurrent feature of recent painting has been the traced outline filled with flat or single colour, a silhouette for a familiar icon or the print-friendly reduction of a complex object. Lisa Ruyter belongs to this trend, in a spectrum that variously isolates a single figure against an even ground, or combines them in a scheme or layout and includes early Lari Pittman, Gary Hume, Kara Walker, Sally Smart (see archives on linked web page) much of Franz Ackermann, (see also Post 2) even Ingrid Calame and some recent Donald Baechler.
The tendency arose along a number of paths in the mid or late 80s, in the wake of New Image Painting, in reaction to the roughshod allegory of Neo-Expressionism, prompted by the motifs of Pattern and Decoration. It suggests a return to Pop Art and a stress on reproduction or printing technique as a measure of the singularity of painting – of the painterliness of depiction. Yet it does not resort to the commonest of print illustrations, as in a Warhol or Lichtenstein, but rather applies the technique to less familiar objects (or subjects), takes the language of Pop and disperses it, refashions it against a less comfortable or popular world. Icons become unsteady here, unsteadiness earns its icons.
The effect may seem too subtle to be subversive, too passive or peripheral, no more than minor or late Pop. But it nevertheless allows painting solid ground (in more ways than one) while testing objects in novel ways and colours, re-engages old issues of the abstract versus concrete, the ideal and realistic, literal and metaphorical. Ruyter’s contribution in this typically draws mild approval, proceeds from photographic sources for urban landscape, glamorous occasions, and in this year’s show, self-portraits, to some extent mimicking celebrity photography in pose and framing. Where others use bold outline to simplify and exaggerate salient features, Ruyter remains doggedly literal; objects extend in a consistent space across the picture, even when choice of outline and colour create puzzles. For the photograph cannot be merely traced to a reductive set of colours or planes without compromising the object; confusing colour, tone, depth and contour at some point. Abstraction arises simply in the pursuit of a consistent line.
Any illustrator knows line will only carry a tracing so far, that one must resort to more graded means beyond that. One way or another, decisions about line arise for the tracer, about width or fineness, resolution, coherence or integrity of shape or plane. Hume, for example is particularly severe in his omissions. For Ruyter her fine, somewhat rounded outlines are sometimes saved together with flat bright colours, other times are resolved into hard edges, leaving the object or scene a set of discrete silhouettes or planes. By this the picture signals its process, becomes about] the tracing, its relationship to photography and the varying efficiency of outline and choice of fill colours. Icons resist extension it seems, or fill and trace are not enough for some icons. There is either not enough of an object or too much of an icon. The pictures underline the restricted range of means, the mood to colour scheme and fussy outline, beyond a distinct object or icon, in conflict with it.
All the same, if Ruyter’s work seems to lack rigour or impact it is because trace and fill offer more options that the fine lines and flat colours she has so far favoured and because choice of object does not always resonate fully with the iconic nature of trace and fill. Form does not always meet adequate content. Perhaps trace and fill need more of an icon before the extension to incidentals of shadow; angle and surroundings, for example, can be effective. One senses this equation in works such as The man in the mirror, where a glamorous model is attended by the outstretched arms of a make-up artist (the man) – ‘the icon’ here shrewdly extended to the maker, to their curious space and surroundings. Then again, perhaps colour needs to be tied more closely to objects, if only in part or occasionally. The project is sound, if the practice a little tentative or complacent. Ruyter has a distinguished exhibition record, stretching back to the early 90s – it remains to be seen how much more she can make of it.