Mykl Ruffino

at Wood Street Gallery, through March 25

Linda Horn

at Fassbender Gallery, through March 18

Most of the works in the “Power of Pattern” exhibit at Wood Street Gallery strongly declare their presence with bright, assertive shapes or unusual subjects. Dan Russell’s geometrically patterned quilts and Nick Cave’s large fabric piece filled with jagged lines, dynamic shapes, and powerful colors are hard to miss, while Scott Lesh’s arrangements of dead mice and goldfish on paper are, to say the least, unusual. Displayed alongside these, Mykl Ruffino’s four playing cards decorated with simple patterns of irregular stripes or squares might seem at first like the product of an idle child’s play.

Twelve more of Ruffino’s works, displayed alone in their own room, seem almost bashful, but much of what I like about them is tied to their quiet modesty. There’s a collage of torn playing cards, several collages of torn photos, and seven wood sculptures about three inches wide by seven feet high–so thin compared to the windows beside them that someone breezing through might mistake them for part of the room’s decor. In fact I wondered at first whether to take them as autonomous works.

Arise and Awake each combine two types of wood in 13 narrow strips about a quarter inch wide, arranged in alternating bands of their natural colors, brown and light tan. These strips are fastened with glue and internal nails; the straight-edged precision with which they’re joined and the contrast between their width and length make for a certain elegance. Yet they’re presented in a way that seems to minimize their immediate impact.

Displayed at a key focal point of a piazza or public park, a heroic equestrian statue asserts a powerful self-sufficiency; the grand personage could, it seems, conquer the world. Seen in the clear light of a museum gallery, Louise Nevelson’s beautiful wood wall sculptures provide a vast lexicon of abstract shapes whose mysterious interrelations can engage the viewer for hours. But Ruffino elected to display his sculptures between large windows, a location usually shunned by artists, who justifiably fear that the light or the view will overwhelm their work. Moreover, he created his pieces specifically for these spaces. The thin strips of wood, occupying only a fraction of the wall space, begin by effacing their own presence.

The outer strips of Arise and Awake are bands of the darker woods, bubinga and purpleheart. Thus each work seems a bit enclosed or framed, separated from the flanking windows. The strips’ narrowness gives the eye little horizontal space to move about; instead the eye tends to glide freely up the long bands, which extend way above head level. And when one reaches the bottom or the top the piece simply ends. Self-enclosed at their sides, these works seem utterly open above and below. Unbounded by any frame, they seem to continue almost indefinitely into space. The simplicity of form and openness above and below separates them from the complete-in-themselves worlds of most art; only a simple design and a few saw cuts and glue lines removed from raw wood, they evoke living nature as much as art history. By offering the viewer less, Ruffino asks the imagination to do more.

In Passion and Halcyon Ruffino varies the width of his 13 strips, which increase from three-sixteenths of an inch at the edge to three-eighths of an inch in the center. The eye, naturally seeking freedom of movement, tends to drift from the narrow bands at the edge toward the wider bands at the center, then upward and finally out of the work. By leading the eye away from the physical work toward the boundless space beyond, Ruffino hints at a kind of transcendence; he told me he connects the strips to “the idea of spiritual ascendency.”

Ruffino was born in Cincinnati in 1956, but his family soon moved to California and then to Oklahoma City, where he grew up. His psychiatrist father has a deep interest in art–he collected, he bought art books, he took his kids to museums. An aunt used to encourage Ruffino to play “scribble games,” scribbling all over a piece of paper and then trying to discern shapes in the marks. A graduate of the School of the Art Institute, he now works as an exhibit preparator at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Ruffino says his job has affected the way he views art, making him more aware of how it’s displayed; he made all the frames of his pieces in the current show and considers them part of the work. But framing is also an explicit subject in Frame (Old Sarouk). This work began with a series of 18 color photos he took of the border of an old sarouk carpet owned by his father. Ruffino then tore these photos to display only that border and a tiny sliver of the design that begins at its edge. The pieces were then arranged on a white background as if they constituted a photo of the outer edge of the rug–all mounted within a finely made wood frame whose proportions echo the rug’s border.

This odd work, with its mysterious, almost poetic inner contradictions and self-abnegation, kept calling me back. The border in the photos has an elegant, geometrically precise design, but the photos, while neatly placed together to produce a rectangle, are roughly torn. Ruffino seems to be celebrating the rug’s “frame,” yet the main part of the rug, the presumably more elaborate design of the center, is missing. There are tantalizing hints that it’s quite different from the border; the shapes seem larger, and it appears to have greens in addition to the reds and blues that dominate the border.

What Ruffino has done here, even more explicitly than in his wood sculptures, is mount a kind of negation of complete-in-itself imagery. The border design, he seems to be saying, is powerful enough to let your mind’s eye fill the white center with whatever shapes it may suggest. The authoritarian relationship between image and viewer common to much premodernist art–which offers imagery to be venerated–is replaced by an invitation to the viewer to become a more creative participant in image making.

In another photo collage, Fore and Aft, Ruffino acknowledges the role the mechanics of photography play in creating imagery. He took 11 shots of a brick wall, looking down on it a bit from above. The bricks near the top of each photo appear larger than the bricks at the bottom, so to achieve a continuous record of the wall he tore each into a slightly trapezoidal shape and then attached it at a slight angle to its neighbor. Together the photos make a gently curved arch, which he has placed against a white background in another handmade frame. Most of the bricks in the wall are horizontal, so this arch is an illusion, but the center three photos also show an archway of almost vertical bricks embedded in the horizontal ones at oblique angles.

Here Ruffino seems to be gently comparing his photo arranging to the bricklayer’s art, and the comparison is an admiring one. By offering the bricklayer’s arch pride of place at the center of his own, he seems to be saying he hopes he’s done as well. The artist as creator of perfect forms, maker of alternate worlds, is here replaced by the artist aspiring to the more modest role of craftsman, maker of fragments of archways, imaginer of passageways for the viewer. Connecting arches, thinking about the paradoxes of photographic perspective, and once again seeing a framed image with lots of empty white space around it, the viewer also takes both arches as kinds of frames, as portals for the mind’s eye.

Linda Horn’s works share some important qualities with Ruffino’s. Many are based on photos, and though Horn’s work is sculptural, Ruffino too likes to think of even his photo arrangements as sculptural. Horn’s new pieces also don’t immediately look like fine art; their paradoxical appearance might cause the viewer to wonder at first, What am I looking at? Yet their odd ambiguity produces much of their interest.

The 11 pieces now on view at Fassbender Gallery are mostly photos Horn took of natural objects and then silk-screened onto aluminum, felt, or carpet. Corporatus Grandifolia presents four ovals, each perhaps not coincidentally a shape that recalls the Good Housekeeping seal of approval. In each a felt border surrounds a felt oval with a different tint and texture and a silk-screened image of highly manicured, almost abstractly geometric hedges. The title of the work and the appearance of the ovals suggest a corporation’s seal. These pieces could almost decorate a headquarters lobby, but their reshaping of nature also looks a bit ridiculous.

The humor in Horn’s faux Latin titles extends to the works themselves. Rotundafolia Horizontalis mounts felt horizontally on wood. Photo images of a cluster of almost identical bushes trimmed to flat tops are silk-screened four times on the felt, the repetition of the cluster emphasizing the way the bushes themselves are trimmed. These bushes are also printed on the green carpet that covers the valiselike Rotundafolia Mobilus, which doesn’t open but is mysteriously equipped with a handle. This group of bushes seems powerful, even monumental, and yet it also looks as silly as a group of teenagers with identical flattop haircuts. Perspectus Pompus, also felt on wood, displays an image of hedges receding into depth, but any three-dimensional effect is undercut by the rough, multicolored fibers of the felt, which calls far more attention to itself than canvas or photographic paper does.

Like Ruffino, Horn makes her statement by fusing opposing tendencies in single works. She photographs nature, but a nature that has been tamed, groomed, transformed into human designs. Her photos are then printed on industrial materials, like felt or aluminum, whose shapes often mimic consumer objects–a valise, a tray. The images printed on these objects hardly invite one into the depicted world: the images on felt are grainy; the ones on aluminum are suffused with its metallic gray.

While acknowledging that these surfaces are as important as the imagery on them, Horn, like Ruffino, also mounts a gentle protest against self-enclosed and self-important imagery. The three elaborate topiaries in Robustus Maximus are so extravagantly biomorphic, especially when set against mundane suburban streets, that they elicit smiles. The hubris that would reshape nature becomes laughable, absurd.

A Chicago resident who was born here in 1940 and an MFA graduate of the School of the Art Institute, Horn has exhibited extensively since 1980. She sees the bushes she depicts as examples of urbanites’ principal contact with nature and says she tries to avoid criticizing that: “I’m interested in seeking to explore the interface [between humans and nature], and that means to suspend judgment somewhat.”

Her father owned an outdoor- sign company, where she once worked as a billboard painter. The “graphic clarity of the signs,” the necessity that they capture a driver’s attention in less than a second, impressed her, and she learned from and admired the craftsmanship of her colleagues, though she still didn’t think of sign painting as fine art.

While her works require repeated viewings for their ironies to become fully evident, their design is relatively simple if not as loud as that of an outdoor sign. Each piece is a kind of hybrid, a paradoxical object that’s one part illusionistic image, one part imitation consumer product, one part fine-art sculpture. The simple but often surprising shapes seem to lovingly echo the sculpted bushes they also poke fun at.

Two of Horn’s best works are among her oddest. Terra Striatum presents a felt roll mounted on a rod attached to the wall, as if the piece were a paper-towel dispenser. A portion of the roll that hangs down shows an image of a landscape of barren ridges, parts of which are repeated several times. The contrast between industrial materials and the natural landscape is apparent, but one also thinks of the preprinted designs on paper towels–the almost abstract, high-contrast image itself is almost pure pattern. Our industrial culture has reduced nature imagery to picture postcards, TV travelogues, kitsch paintings, even placemats–could paper towels be far behind? But these images have none of the easy pleasure of kitsch: they are as austere as the metal of the dispenser. One also envisions the possibility that the landscape we see is itself the result of recent clear-cutting–did some of the trees go to a mill that makes paper towels?

Even stranger is the almost surrealist Rotundafolia Reflectus. Here a large round shrub is silk-screened onto aluminum; a dark shadow sits on the ground under it. Mounted on the wall under the aluminum image is a semicircular wooden wedge covered in green carpet that reflects a hint of its green onto the bush’s shadow.

There’s a bizarre joke here: the flat shadow of a black-and-white photo has become a solid green object. Nature, it would seem, is becoming green–but this industrial green carpet isn’t exactly Edenic. The insubstantial shadow, traditionally symbolic of the invisible spirits of things, here becomes solid, almost like a mass-produced object.

If Ruffino steps back from making complete-in-themselves works in order to set the viewer free, Horn makes groomed shrubs seem so powerful that their shadows can leap out of the imagery that depicts them and transform themselves into solid objects in full color. Horn’s fascination with the interplay between illusionistic imagery and tactile surfaces is here transformed into a humorously exaggerated vision of the way that our overproducing, overconsuming, ever-acquisitive culture leaves little space for the imagination. Every shadow, every trace of the invisible, has become nightmarishly reified.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Reproductions of “Frame (Old Sarouk)” by Mykl Ruffino, and “Corporatus Grandifolia” by Linda Horn.