I first stumbled across Ruth Lantz’s paintings while waiting to meet someone in the Stumptown on 3rd Avenue, downtown Portland. I’d walked in the door, hopped in line, and then started looking around absent-mindedly. As I inched forward, debating whether or not to indulge in a pastry with my coffee, I’d noticed the series of paintings hanging on the exposed brick walls.
They were big by coffee shops standards, and dealt in abstraction, a risky currency. Long bars of color jutted and strafed boldly across the canvases, applied with varying degrees of opacity, some bright and thick, some almost translucent. A few of the canvases had a spotty, mottled quality that reminded me of a steamed-over shower door. I jotted down Lantz’s name on a whim.
When I got in touch with her a few days later, she responded to my e-mail with an invitation to meet at her studio in the Lincoln Building. I did some research ahead of the interview, during which I found the following statement on Lantz’s website.
I create paintings that explore the ambiguity of perceptual understanding. I invite viewers to re-discover unresolved phenomena through the consideration of tensional forces. I produce images that sit on the edge of recognition but are unnamable in their presence. I am seeking a work in constant flux, searching for both its beginning and its end.
Using conscious mark-making and improvisational techniques, I capture the essence of a layered occurrence through a veiled understanding. I fill each surface with an indeterminate field and ask viewers to question what is coming into being and what slips into the absence. I push for an end that has no name but rather hovers in the ether of an uncertain state — encapsulating one amorphous environment on the brink of transformation.
I wasn’t sure what to do with that.
I came in with a lot of questions, having been historically skeptical of the philosophical girders underpinning abstract expressionism, while also being deeply moved by much of the actual work I’d encountered over the years. Add to that my healthy self-awareness of my own ignorance around the history of painting and said philosophical underpinnings, along with the whiff of pretension I caught from Lantz’s artist statement, and you had a recipe for intrigued confusion.
Ruth Lantz turned out to be a hospitable, slightly shy woman with glasses and dark, curly hair. When I arrived at the door of her studio she invited me in and made me tea, after which we sat by the large windows at one end of her studio. The canvases I’d seen at Stumptown were scattered around in various poses; hanging, laying flat, leaning against the walls, swaddled in bubble wrap. Trains passed noisily on the tracks outside.
Lantz took her undergraduate degree at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She dabbled in a number of disciplines there, and took a job working for a painter who was also an instructor.
“She called me one day and was like, ‘We have to talk about your work,’ ” Lantz recalls. “She started reaming me. ‘Why aren’t you painting?! You have such good hands.’ ”
Four years after completing her BFA, Lantz created an entire body of paintings that she used to apply to graduate school. “I really didn’t start painting painting until I got out of undergrad,” she remembers. “I had a massive learning curve once I got to grad school.”
After starting her graduate studies at the Pacific Northwest College of Art, Lantz started making installations again, waffling as to whether she was really a painter. Finally, she told me, she “ended up having the same kind of conversation with myself about how it related to my life and interests. That it was still valid. Because there are always conversations about the validity of painting. If it’s practical.”
I asked if she felt she had to justify herself to non-painters.
“All the time.”
“That in this sort of a culture, in this sort of a world, painting as a pursuit in and of itself holds its ground.
“I think some artists have a hard time with painting,” she explained. “It’s been around such a long time, and takes a while to unravel itself. We’re more comfortable watching videos or looking at a photograph. I don’t want to sound like a snob, but music is downloadable. Film is downloadable. But you look at a JPEG of a painting on the internet and it’s a different experience.”
The question of how we experience art dredged up memories from my own undergraduate career. I’d taken a class called “The Artist and the Making of Meaning.” The professor had spent the entire semester confronting us with the reality that any work of art, once created, is set free upon the high seas of public consumption. Unless an artist is standing next to a painting, for instance, ready to tell any passer by what her intent was in creating the piece and what they might look for while contemplating it, the viewer will make their own meaning, bringing their own faculties of perception and unique worldview to bear on the art. The irony, of course, is that even if the artist were present, she wouldn’t be able to control anyone’s reaction or perception.
I shared this memory with Lantz, then asked her how it feels to know that she has no say in how people experience her work.
“I try and make my paintings open-ended enough that I invite interpretation,” she answered after thinking about it. “Which is one reason I like abstraction. It allows for that questioning of what’s going on, what you’re seeing, or where this comes from. I really like that tension between abstraction and the real world. I really don’t think that abstraction can come from nowhere. It has to be rooted somewhere.
“I’m really interested in visual ambiguity. So I’m drawn to images or natural occurrences in the world where there’s already a veil of ambiguity, something where there’s already something obscuring my vision, such as a foggy window or a curtain. Or when I take my glasses off and everything’s blurry. I kind of enjoy that blurred experience of the world.”
Lantz went on to explain how abstract expressionism often plays with the part of our minds that are predisposed to want to find recognizable shapes in what we look at.
“With abstract painting there often isn’t anything to really grab on to. There isn’t a person, there isn’t a building. You’re left floating. Which is what I like about it.”
I point out one painting on the wall. A bar of blue at the top could be construed as sky, a patch of green at the bottom as grass. A dark, curved shape circumscribes the middle, assimilated by my eye as a sandstone arch completing a dreamlike desert canyon scene.
I asked Lantz if she felt the need to convert people to an understanding or appreciation for abstract painting.
“I think my work speaks to a very small margin of people,” Lantz said. “But I think a lot of work does, unless you’re an artist that really goes out and tries to work with the public. I don’t think a lot of people engage in culture. I’m kind of a painter’s painter. I make paintings that other people who enjoy painting enjoy. And it’s hard to convert people.”
I eventually steered the conversation toward how Lantz actually makes her paintings. Painting exists at a point where the higher faculties of visualization, non-verbal abstraction, imagination and improvisation meet the physical realm. Ideas and impulses are channeled through arms, brushes and pigments.
“I lay the canvases flat. All of them are super layered. With some of them there’s also a removal process. I’m having a constant conversation with myself, and there are a lot of improvisational moves and watching what happens with the paint while I’m painting. So I’m both watching what happens as well as making things happen, which is where conscious decision and bodily precision start to play together.”
“These,” she gestured toward the canvases on the wall, next to which were taped enlarged photocopies, “Started as photographs.” Working off the inspiration of the photos she began making her paintings. “Then they started to change. So it’s a constant translation.
“A lot of people are like, ‘How did you make that?!’ I think some people assume I have a lot of skill because they don’t know how it’s made, and there’s a certain wonderment that comes with that. Whereas a lot of other abstract painters with just as much skill as I have get devalued because people perceive their work as sloppy, when it’s in fact incredibly complicated.”
Getting ready to leave, I asked Lantz if she painted full-time. She laughed at me.
“Oh no! I teach at Washington State University in Vancouver and I also work at PNCA as a painting tech. I work with students to help them build stretchers and learn the basic underbelly of painting. The gritty stuff. And I run a painting club at PNCA. Painting full time is not really realistic in this market. I was in school when that whole thing happened.”
The whole thing she referred to was the Great Recession, an economic downturn that has engendered a rancorous cultural backlash against luxury and wealth. The American collector who can invest in fine art has, in many circles, been vilified from hell to breakfast for going on half a decade. I mention to Lantz that even fairly priced paintings could be considered luxury items in an economy like ours. What was it like knowing that only a relatively small, comparatively privileged subset of people could afford to buy her work?
“It’s a reality that a certain income base will probably buy my work,” she acknowledged. “And that is probably not the most, I don’t know, socially changing endeavor on my part. But at the same time this is what I want to do. I want to make paintings. I’ll do my part to save the world in some other way. I try not to think about the social implications. Because I’m not making political work.”
She paused for a moment.
“I was talking to my mom the other day, and she goes, ‘The rich people still have money, Ruthie.’ ” She laughed wistfully. “That’s what she said.”