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Impassioned Impasto: 'Chongo and Morning,' a 1996 oil on canvas, shows Phe Ruiz's desire to capture what threatens to overtake from within.

Phe Ruiz pursues the hair-trigger truth of personal reality at new MACLA exhibit

By Ann Elliott Sherman

FOR MANY people, "abstract expressionism" is convenient shorthand for all that is alienating in art; the term alone induces a panic-stricken, involuntary search for escape. It's as if nonrepresentational painting speaks an unfamiliar language diametrically opposed to the cultural bias for communications that are immediate, uncomplicated and direct.

The populist suspicion that someone's out to make the uninitiated look stupid breeds a certain willful ignorance: "I don't get it--it's just a lot of paint smeared around, what's it's supposed to be?"

This response, however, is unlikely to happen in the event an unsuspecting viewer wanders into MACLA this month and discovers the decidedly expressionist works of Phe Ruiz.

How do I know? Easy--I took my sons along, despite much groaning, in the middle of a school holiday. Once les enfants sauvage stopped racing around the echoing room long enough to notice, there was none of their usual eye-rolling dismissal. "I like these," they both said, drawn in like electrons obeying the laws of magnetic affinity with an unknown element.

A Ruiz painting is an uncensored, almost dogged catharsis--feelings intuitively, insistently translated into color, form, movement. There is nothing premeditated or conceptual about it. Rather than the realm of idea or trend, her impassioned impasto serves the urge to capture what threatens to overtake from within, like the darker side of child's play. To paraphrase an old blues tune, "Adults don't know, but the little kids understand."

Notice that I didn't describe Ruiz's paintings and drawings as "abstract." There's virtually no intellectualized removal from reality here, though the reality she chases in hot pursuit is hers alone--the hair-trigger truth of deeply personal memory rooted in subjective emotion.

Her method might be called automatic or stream-of-consciousness painting. It is a rush toward channeling the unedited inner voice directly through the action of putting pigment on canvas that functions much like journal keeping does for many writers. It didn't surprise me to read that Ruiz approaches her work like a spiritual practice, a 10-day daily painting discipline followed by one day of sitting still. Mainlining the subconscious demands a certain rigor, an ascetic order that keeps one just this side of losing control entirely.

The relentlessly insular, internalized focus of Ruiz's work is, however, an abstraction from the kind of everyday existence filled with external demands most of us live. This--and the artist's refusal to have any truck with efforts to explain her work or place it in any but its own context--has made art-world insiders talk about her as some mythic wild child, a neo-näif waif.

Ruiz's disclaimer of any artistic antecedents probably has more to do with the inward spin of her personal gyroscope (which disallows any sense of a felt connection) than it does with a total lack of familiarity with other expressionists' work.

THE ARTIST'S EDITING is additive, not subtractive. She'll squeeze another layer of pure color atop wet pigment, letting the strokes mix it up right there on the canvas, the better to get at that throbbing raw nerve's exact vibrational pitch. (Although it's easier to imagine the artist pursuing her demons far from the madding crowd as she once did in the Santa Cruz Mountains, one imagines that those runs for more paint down backroads in an El Niño winter tipped the scale toward her recent move to San Francisco's urban brand of isolation.)

A vaguely discernible image, say the figure in Joan's Garden, is occasionally given more definition by adding an outline in a high-contrast color, but even there, it's the swirling movement of the paint alone that suggests any features.

The White Sash features muddied blood and earth tones reminiscent of Clyfford Still's palette that make the broadly stroked, kimonolike sash on the central figure nearly jump out of the canvas. But the eye arcs from this retinal shock to the "face." White pigment lifts up underlayered colors in a grayed, spiraling blur that might be hands shielding the eyes in a suggestion of horror or a kind of disembodied meltdown, the real thing.

It's as if a remembered family photo from an innocent age has taken on Dorian Gray qualities in hindsight, a formal portrait pose peeled down to psychic pain worthy of Edvard Munch.

Looking away from this powerful assault to the relative calm of Sunspots is a welcome relief. The titular forms are rendered in tropical triadic bright hues and anchored by a biomorphic mauve shape smoothly brushed with a house-painting-sized brush. Its cool pastel is as easygoing as Ruiz gets.

The recent Red Scarf indicates that improvisational painting and dynamic composition aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. Its zigzagging play of red with limey yellow, Kodak orange, British racing green, blue and black is edgy and ... fun. Joy seldom drives the same kind of creative release as pain, but embracing its possibility requires just as much fearless passion as catharsis.

Phe Ruiz: Drawings and Paintings runs through Dec. 12 at MACLA/San José Center for Latino Arts, 510 S. First St., San Jose. (408/998-ARTE). A panel discussion featuring the artist, Maribel Alvarez, Frederick Spratt and Sheila Pickett takes place Dec. 3 at 7pm.

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From the November 19-24, 1998 issue of Metro.

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