Ruthie V. has a cool name, but she is not a cool artist. First, the name: She says it's just what people have always called her (her full name is not a secret; it's Sarah Ruth Vergin). Now for the rest. Her website is forthcoming about her work as a "color consultant": She will be your home or office decorator if you would like that. Curators everywhere can be heard gasping.
On top of this, for anyone who visits her solo show this month at Shift Studio in Pioneer Square, she'll do an on-the-spot portrait painting, or snap a picture if you'd rather pick up your painting later: She'll be your caricaturist-on-the-fly, like a boothie at a street fair. Furthermore, she's giving them away for free. For free. Does she not value herself? My god!
And when you inquire about the inspiration for her collection of 30 new paintings—some depicting sophisticated scenes, others sentimental sap-fests like cats and dogs ("This was me trying to see: Can I do pet portraits? Yes. Yes, I can")—she'll name-check Vuillard. The name barely rises out of the great fog of French Painters of the Past, not because he is mediocre, but because his domestic interiors were never absolutely the thing either.
The fact remains that Ruthie V. has made some very good paintings, and you should know about her.
You might recall that a few years ago a group of Leipzig painters became the darlings of the art world, traveling the globe with their East-German-hermit-mythology intact. They were reinventing representational painting was the word. Some of their paintings, featured locally at the Frye Art Museum, were tremendously good, so satisfying on so many levels. But we must acknowledge that the seductive narrative that linked them together was part of their appeal, and this is what Ruthie V. does not have. It is okay. Ruthie V. provides an example of what an artist without much calculation is up to, and many artists are without calculation. Not as many are also this good.
Ruthie moved from Bellingham a year ago after meeting a man she's about to marry. This is relevant information because her new works appear under the title Domestic: Soul of an Interior, a phrase from her Vuillard readings that reflected her state of mind as she prepared for her second Seattle solo (her first was at Shift in 2011). Google this phrase and you find, on VictorianWeb.org, a link to a piece of writing about "Domestic interiors as extensions of the feminine soul." Now we're no longer a bunch of Victorians, but extending your feminine soul into the wide world is also not a great marketing strategy in the competitive, intellectualized realm of contemporary art. Ruthie rides again.
Domestic is, in fact, more sedate than Ruthie's past works, which have been larger and brighter. Here, in an enlarged, new Shift Studio space (still in the Tashiro Kaplan building), her two-room exhibition is roughly divided into two parts. One side is her portrait studio. An easel is set up, and pieces of paper bearing watercolor faces, proliferating constantly as more people visit and request them, are tacked onto the wall. What you will notice immediately is that these free takeaways are highly refined, though they were obviously made quickly. The shading and coloring are soft, detailed, and deft. In a few cases, you have the distinct feeling that this, here, is the minimum number of strokes possible to transfer this human onto this paper. It will come as no surprise to learn that Ruthie studied, in part, in Japan.
That sometimes breathtaking economy applies in the other half of the gallery, too, where the oils on linen and oils on canvas hang tidily on perfectly lightly toned gray-brown walls. Backdrop muting is no accident; again, Domestic conjures comfort, which sometimes feels unsurpassably pleasurable, and sometimes induces yawning, and Ruthie is representing both her experiences. Maybe the greatest painting here is Sunday, a dusky thing 24 inches tall and 18 inches wide. It dryly delivers a bedroom scene seen through an open doorway. A man is lying on the bed straight ahead, reading, but because the position of the open door obscures him partly, he is a headless man. A headless man enjoying an extremely relaxing late Sunday morning—what a thing. And the strangeness is contained entirely within the image, invented by visual means. (You also don't want to miss the simply great glass doorknob. Pure visual art is what.)
The other maybe-greatest painting here is almost, almost too close to Matisse. It's another man in bed, this one still asleep, buried in a comforter that's a red-orange sea of curving lines and a barely sketched white flower pattern. The painting is a little smaller than the other one, or maybe just seems it, is unframed, and its tension is between the tenderness and the riot of color. Again, perfectly keyed and entirely on the surface for anyone to see. Ruthie could probably sell this one in a minute for a bundle. It's the heart of the show, she admits. Its label is the only one that reads "NFS": not for sale.