Review by David Pagel, Gallery Magazine 2015
At a time when lots of young artists are getting lots of attention for making paintings that give nothing away—and go out of their way to withhold satisfaction from viewers—it’s refreshing to come across two solo debuts currently on view in Los Angeles. Tightfisted stinginess plays no part in Sally Bruno’s big figurative paintings at LAM Gallery, which hold nothing back. Nor do Bruno’s fun-loving pictures of flowers, women and birds fetishize deferred gratification, suggesting, like so much contemporary painting, that the “idea” of pleasure is more important than the nitty-gritty experience of it, not to mention many other physical sensations, including awe, amazement and joy, as well as embarrassment, confusion and incomprehension.
Each of the young LA painter’s oils on canvas is a lavish rainbow of supersaturated colors slathered on with abandon. Bruno paints as if parsimony were the last thing on her mind. That’s true of the materials she uses (buckets of paint, huge areas thickly covered with sensuous slabs of color and compositions that are full—never overcrowded but far closer to the end of the scale that tips toward excessiveness). It’s also true of the spirit in which her works are made. A sense of no-going-back decisiveness takes form in Bruno’s bold paintings. It goes hand-in-hand with a sense of all-in, this-is-it commitment.
That wholeness or fullness or lay-it-all-on-the-line completeness is part of the vitality that Bruno’s paintings so abundantly serve up. But it is no stranger to its opposite: The absence of satisfaction that can be felt when life dims, doubt creeps in and depression enters the picture, making ordinarily enjoyable experiences seem hollow, pointless and empty. To be sure, Bruno does not paint those moments. But as a viewer you’d have to be pretty clueless not to see that her paintings are attuned to life’s complexities, acutely aware of its pitfalls as well as its pleasures. There’s a toughness to her works, which are accompanied by loads of loveliness and so many pointed pleasures that this feature might be missed by viewers incapable of seeing past the obvious. Compositionally, her images are fractured, each section a jigsaw puzzle piece that locks together with others, momentarily making sense while providing viewers with infinite possibilities. Each piece is also a world within a world, its wacky patterns and preposterous color-combinations more than enough to stand on its own as a solitary painting. The part-by-part structure of Bruno’s works opens gives them experiential richness, not to mention ambiguity, nuance and sophistication. It invites viewers to get lost, to savor particularities, to be amazed by the most incidental of details.
All of Bruno’s paintings suggest that the objects around us are not nearly as interesting as the relationships we have with them, especially the emotions we bring to them and the energy we invest in them. In a sense, her paintings suggest that the world is a container we fill with our connections to it, pouring our souls into it every thing, every moment. Bruno makes that phenomenon visible. Her work is a gift. Uninterested in keeping things from us, and opposed to withholding anything, her gregarious paintings understand—and make space for—generosity, karma and love.
Something similar takes shape in Robert Ropson’s little ships. Installed on three tables at South Willard, in an exhibition organized by Steven Baker through Creative Growth, the New Zealander’s ceramic sculptures are the size of toys. But Ropson’s undulating ocean liners do not call to mind the digital toys that distract kids today, keeping their thumbs busy while squeezing the juice out of their imaginations. Instead, Ropson’s ships hark back to an earlier time, when the toys kids played with did not have to be plugged in. Made of wood, metal and plastic, they left more to the imagination. Kids had no trouble providing the spark that brought them to life, often motoring their toys through space or bathtubs while visualizing the worlds they belonged to.
Even better, Ropson’s deliciously detailed cruise liners flaunt the fact that they are handmade. Pinched, squeezed and squished into existence, they recall Saturday afternoon crafts, when kids were given lumps of clay and allowed to let their imaginations run wild. In Ropson’s talented hands, there is a fantastic balance between a viewer’s mental image of a ship—sharp lines, clean surfaces, solid forms—and what is before us, unexpectedly detailed and precisely observed and meticulously made—yet wavy, unfixed, almost fluid, as if it is in motion or undergoing some kind of magical transformation, like a mirage on a desert highway or the constantly moving surface of the sea. The shapes of Ropson’s sculptures call to mind the ways rolling waves and choppy surf reflect sunlight, throwing rays every which way in a glorious display of the sensuality of different states of matter: light, liquid and solid—all coming together in moments of transcendent beauty.
Clay serves Ropson well, its transformation from soft to hard, malleable to brittle to sturdy (when fired) evoking all sorts of state changes while acknowledging the passage of time. There’s wisdom in these little ships, in which nothing is taken for granted. They are also humble and unassuming. Ropson never lectures or hectors or preaches, preferring that viewers come to his works on their own terms. Born in 1951 in Wellington, New Zealand, he didn’t start working with clay until 1991, after he had lost his job and fell into a funk, which turned serious. That set him to thinking about the pleasure ships he had watched as a child, embarking and arriving from the docks where his father worked. Like Bruno, Ropson does not make melancholy the subject of his art. Nor does he dwell on his personal history. But there is more to his art than playful reverie. Mementos of faraway places, whether real or imagined, his tabletop ships evoke other lives, both intimately and vicariously, as well as happily and sadly, sometimes seasoned with regrets and at other times unencumbered by such weighty baggage.
The difference between Bruno’s big oils on canvas and Ropson’s little clay sculptures are obvious. The similarities are more intriguing. There’s something painterly and pictorial about Ropson’s three-dimensional objects. Likewise, Bruno’s compositions have a sculptural, even quasi-architectural solidity. Both artists begin with recognizable things—ships, pets, flowers and chairs—and use such accessible objects to make room for lots more: emotions, recollections and intimacy. Their works stand out from the crowd because they embrace the open-ended unpredictability of communication, which cannot be controlled or foreseen. By definition, it’s a two-way street, a back-and-forth that requires giving. Willing to take risks, Bruno and Ropson begin with their innermost sentiments and make works that radiate outward from there, subtly and generously and with no interest in holding anything back.