by ALLIE BISWAS
New York-based painter Ruth Root (b1967), known for her dazzling asymmetrical canvases, is participating in her first solo museum show in the US. The Chicago-born artist, who has been exhibiting since the mid-90s, is showing a new series of work at the Aldrich Contemporary Museum of Art – more than a dozen medium-to-large, site-engaged paintings – alongside an intimate display of a selection of works on paper made over a six-year period, from 1998 to 2003.
Root’s display at the Aldrich is a predecessor to two further shows next year: a presentation at Galería Marta Cervera, Madrid, in April; and an exhibition at 356 Mission, Los Angeles, in November.
Allie Biswas: How does it feel to have your first solo museum exhibition in the United States?
Ruth Root: I am so happy to have a show at the Aldrich. It was sort of a surprise. I met Amy Smith-Stewart [the exhibition’s curator] right after I made a huge shift in my work to fabric and Plexiglas pieces. My new work was seen only during a residency at Dartmouth College [New Hampshire]. It was not in the art world yet, and I wasn’t sure if anyone would appreciate it. It was so exciting to find support for this work and know that I had an outlet for it to be shown.
AB: Although you have been working for more than 20 years, the show focuses on your paintings starting in 1998, with the latest paintings dating from 2015. Why did you decide to not include earlier works?
RR: My earlier enamel on aluminium paintings have been shown a lot during the past 10 years, both in America and Europe. It was the work I was most known for. The early work and the much later work are like branches in other directions, and Amy Smith-Stewart saw a relationship between them that I felt excited about. So I wanted to try to make all new work for the majority of this show. I was excited for the new work to be seen, and to know also that I had to commit to a new way of working and not fall back on my old materials. I was really trying to work in a new way, in order to expand my work.
AB: You personally chose the title of the exhibition – Old, Odd and Oval. The word “odd” is an interesting descriptive tag, indicating the contradictory quality often visible in your work. What is your understanding of “odd” in your work?
RR: “Odd”, to me, means “hard to describe”. The paintings are almost like flattened sculptures that have been turned into paintings. Otherwise, they could be thought of as paintings that are sculptural and have their backs to the wall. Sometimes, when a painting is “odd”, it is a surprise and also unfamiliar. Often, a goal of mine in the studio is to surprise myself, and make something work that I didn’t think would work. The result is frequently a quality that I like.
AB: What about “beauty”? Where do you think this fits in?
RR: I am such an appreciator of historical and contemporary paintings, and also colour. I am most familiar with the canon of painting, and within that canon there are just so many paintings that I find beautiful and spectacular. I really feel like I am a person who just loves those aspects more than anything else – more than reading or thinking about ideas. I love to look at handmade things and figure out how they are made, as well as how they function. I also want to think about why there is such a need for things to be made and looked at. I love to see how artists use colour and create such a joy from colour. It seems that the things that I now find beautiful are multiple, but I do love things that are complicated and simple at the same time.
AB: All the paintings dating from 2015 are composed of two parts: a designed and digitally printed fabric and a painted, shaped Plexiglas element. When did you start expanding the types of materials you used in your painting, and how do you “construct” this type of painting?
RR: Around 2009, I finished doing the enamel on aluminium paintings and tried to make more ephemeral paper works. I felt that I was suddenly done with the series I was working on, and was surprised that the paintings seemed to run their course. I wanted to make something that was much more free, and also more spontaneous – something that was new to me and used new materials. I wanted to use the concerns of painting and make something that functioned differently from a painting, but could still be termed a painting, because that’s what it still was.
AB: What is your process of digitally designing fabrics? Is this role different from that of being a painter?
RR: I love Photoshop and I use it to design the fabrics. I really use it in my own way, as an image-making device, rather than to alter photos, for example. The software makes me think about how images are constructed, what with all the different brushes available, and it also makes me consider the way it deconstructs image-making. I find it amazing to look at a painting in Photoshop and change the colour, or else figure out how an artist worked – what was their method, for example. It is the same with fabric. I love trying to figure out how a fabric repeats itself. It is like figuring out a puzzle.
AB: What did you study while at Brown University, and how did this experience inform your art-making practice later on?
RR: I studied art semiotics, and I think it has informed my work in many ways.
AB: Your early works at the beginning of the 90s, straight after you graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and then the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, were largely characterised by text and figurative collage elements. What led you to start thinking about your painting in ways that, eventually, completely removed these aspects?
RR: I was always dependent on the figurative elements, but I just slowly eliminated them. I think the paintings were always sort of anthropomorphic, and then I think the shapes themselves were able to take on those qualities in some way.
AB: How have your sources changed during your career? You have cited artists such as Blinky Palermo, Ellsworth Kelly and Mary Heilmann as long-time influences.
RR: I have so many sources. I am really happy looking at different artists’ work. Sometimes, I will understand or figure out an artists’ work that I hadn’t previously appreciated. It will suddenly be important to me, when it wasn’t before. I will often start to like something slowly. I feel as if, all of a sudden, certain paintings will relate to each other in new ways and begin to interest me.
• Ruth Root: Old, Odd and Oval is at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, Connecticut until 3 April 2016.