Picture This In this month's Portfolio, Michael Yockel explores the profound work of Ruth Pettus.

By Michael Yockel



In Ruth Pettus’ painting “Coming ’Round the Mountain” (2016), an indistinct figure dashes across a trifurcated landscape. Its lack of facial features and hard outlines characterizes much of Pettus’ figurative work.

“I’ve always been more interested in bodies,” Pettus, 59, explains, “so if I just put in a nose or a brow or the shape of the head—that’s enough for me. My figures, particularly in groups, don’t have any particular sex—and as time has gone on, the figures have become almost like shadows.”

Not that she can’t do faces, as demonstrated by her striking 1991 series “Men in Suits,” dark portraits of stern-looking businessmen: “Someone asked me why I didn’t include facial features [in my work]. Was it because I couldn’t?” she recalls with a laugh. “So that set me off doing a whole series of detailed but expressionist faces.”

Born in New Zealand, raised in Australia and England, Pettus studied at the University of Sydney before relocating in 1975 to the U.S., where she studied at D.C.’s Corcoran School of Art—without obtaining a degree. “I’m a dropout,” she deadpans.

Shortly thereafter, she moved to Baltimore, and over the past 35-plus years has amassed an extraordinary body of work that includes paintings, drawings and, since the mid-1990s, sculptures and installations. The latter takes the form of shoes: found, donated, purchased at thrift shops. Pettus distresses her shoes, coating them in wax, binding them with string, sandwiching them between rocks, adhering them to twigs.

“They convey human experience,” she notes, “although that may sound a bit trite. They can evoke many things. I’m not trying to be clever. I just think that everyone can relate to shoes.”

See more of Ruth Pettus’ work at rpettus.com

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