“Under the Radar” Pat Ralph’s Triumph – Art/Write by Peter Pitzele

 Sitting with Pat Ralph in her studio, I feel not for the first time how intimate, even secretive, is the artistʼs working space. From the books on her shelves whiPat in Studioch tell the story of long browsing to the small notes posted on her bulletin board, from the stacked canvasses in well-made shelves to the old favorites on her walls, from the ready brushes in their cans to the paints laid out on her table,
from the pastels in their boxes to the easel supporting a charcoal sketch, the space, bright from its skylight, is the loved lair of a seasoned painter. More like a cat than a queen, Pat presides here.

 

It is tempting to recount the history of her service to the Art League, where she still serves as the chairwoman of the exhibition committee, and her service to the wider world of Long Island art that she has been a part of for more years than she cares to count. But I will forego her volunteer life in favor of looking at her as a serious artist and at several of the paintings she has chosen for her show. Called “Under the Radar,” this selective retrospective opens on Sept 27 and runs through November 1st. The showʼs raison dʼêtre is ostensibly to allow Pat to present rarely seen works in the generous space of the ALLI gallery—large figural paintings, landscapes, still lifes, oils, monotypes, and pastels. 2 “Donʼt speculate,” she ask “Donʼt speculate,” she asks of me. “Just ask me and Iʼll tell you whatever you want to know about the paintings.”

 

I have already started to offer my own interpretations of some of the work she has shown me. I quote D. H. Lawrence to her, who famously said, “Never trust the teller, trust the tale.” I put it to Pat that the viewer may see things in the work that the artist was not aware of. In Pat’s case, her natural, public diffidence seems to me at odds with something very bold, even defiant, in her work.

 

Take for example, “The Painter,” executed in oil on linen in 1976. Pat tells me that this picture was her way of pushing back against what she felt at the time to be the limited attention figural work received in the Long Island art world. “It was all landscape,” she says. The Painter_Oil on linen_34x27_1976“The Painter” is a very brave canvas in which the artist stands naked, holding up a small landscape painting that covers her breasts. Positioned against a featureless wall and wearing only her watch and her glasses, she stares stonily out at the viewer. Her deadpan gaze dares the viewer to stare back. The longer I look at this picture, the more it disturbs me. While the little landscape—the picture within the picture that hides the breasts—has a certain femininity, the strong straight body of the painter has a masculine strength. The tension between the pastoral and the figural keeps splitting my focus, demanding a kind of either-or response. But then I have another thought: Substitute a number plaque for the landscape painting and you have a mug shot, and with that association–which Pat readily admits never occurred to her—the lurking power of the picture—its confronting sullenness, detonates. Is there some sense in which Pat sees herself as an outlaw?

 

Perhaps it is true of every artist that the right hand does not altogether know what the left hand is doing. The poet W.H. Auden said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I write.” That sentence affirms something Lawrence implies as well. If the 20th century had a central contention about The Painter, oil on linen, 1976 3 the nature of art, it had to do with its relation to the unconscious. That century, both fascinated by and subject to the powers of the unconscious, flows into the one we live in now. We cannot return to the restrictions of the formalists. Especially in figural painting, we are drawn into the ambiguities of narrative.

 

Making Shore_oil on canvas_1980_68x48

Making Shore (Icarus Series), Oil on Canvas

Take, for example, the four paintings in the “Icarus” series, in speaking of these paintings, Pat refers to her quarrel with the Icarus myth in terms of its tragic ending. “Why must Icarus die for his youthful enthusiasm?” she asks. In her treatment, the fallen figure, who drowns in the myth, escapes the death penalty and learns to swim.

 

But taken together these four paintings suggest a parable of the artistic endeavor. They trace a movement from the eager launching of a creative project to the blissful state in which an artist may experience something like egoless flight. Then the moment of awakening, of self-doubt, of critical response, even a sense of failure, and there may be a plummet towards despondency. Yet for every artist, as Samuel Beckett said, there is only one mantra: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” The image of the swimmer invites me to think of the resilience of the artistic spirit.

 

Inverting these vertically conceived paintings into horizontals, Pat turns in the same annus mirabilis, 1982, to pictures she calls “the rape” paintings. “The Incident at Snake River” is based on fact, and Pat has used her considerable skills to build a painting that captures brutality and helplessness. As with such scenes whether in art or life, there is what Conrad called “the fascination with abomination.” Making Shore (Icarus Series), oil on canvas 4 Poussin, Rubens, and more recently Picasso have treated this theme of rape, using the classical story of the rape of the Sabines. Pat, like them, creates a crowded foreground, but strips the theme of any kind of baroque grandeur or painterliness by making sure that the woman’s terrible falling awkwardness, her utterly shamed vulnerability, are rendered with unflinching directness.

Incident at Snake River Canyon (1)

The second “Incident” picture–again the neutrality of the title belies the ugliness of the actual situation— takes up a different brutality, but in both cases, Pat shows us a confrontational, defiant side. Without irony and making sure her rendering is consistent with her subject—a flat, bald light, a tension between onlookers and participants, and the placement of us as viewers at the very edge of the scene—she insists that we face and feel the harsh encounter between masculine power and vulnerable (female) human flesh. The strength of her gaze, as in “The Painter,” seems unflinching. I am made aware that this artist has not given up a moral position in the service of her art.

As I turn from these powerful canvases to the restorative moods of her landscapes, I am aware that the artist, too, turns to the natural world for some antidote to her fiercer encounters. The painting “Creek,” the most contemplative of all her paintings in this show, is the farthest from the brute force of the “incident” paintings or the narrative intrigues of Icarus. “Creek” Incident at Snake River Canyon, oil on canvas, 1983 5 speaks in Pat’s purest language of paint, and were it not for the few slender grasses at the painting’s edge, we would be aswim in an abstract field of ambiguous strokes, weightless between heaven and earth.

Creek web

Creek, oil on canvas, 2000

The gorgeous surface of “Creek” finds a counterpart in the clouds in “Winter Sky.” Both pictures have a dreaminess about them; in both only details at the very edge of the canvass anchor water or sky to earth. A similar sense of stillness and drift may be found in “At the End of the Harbor” and “Bay: Late Fall.” In almost all the landscape presented in the show, water is to be found, and I am reminded of the final Icarus painting, and the symbolic sense water seems to carry for Pat, a medium that cleanses and in which transformations occur.

The formal proficiencies in all these paintings make their own case, yet there is hardly a painting in the show that is not in some way a challenge to the very conventions each employs. Pat Ralphʼs work has a defiant energy and intent; they are quiet and powerful. Their somewhat paradoxical implications bring me back her title, “Under the Radar.” The phrase may be intended modestly to tell the story of a woman artist who has been somewhat undetected in her time, but the title should also remind us of combat. The unspotted pilot, if she is to succeed in her mission, must fly “under the radar,” right over her target: there, in stealth and surprise, she delivers her payload.