Ralph Pugay: A Spiritual Guide to Brute Force
In Ralph Pugay’s exhibition, A Spiritual Guide to Brute Force, at Upfor Gallery, more than half of the wall space is covered, nearly floor to ceiling, with drawings on newsprint, which are collectively titled After Swimming. The paper is slightly bubbled by quick brushstrokes made with heavy black lines of ink. From a distance, the texture created by this mass of images, each one executed on either 18”x22” or 22”x30” paper, works a certain magic, transforming the gallery walls into something soft, abstract and tactile, similar in effect to the way both Julie Green and Ellen Lesperance have previously used the same space. On approach, however, the spell is broken. There are apparently 132 of these sketches, each vying for the viewer’s attention and making it difficult to narrow in on what, exactly, one is looking at. The installation is so insistent on its gestalt that the individual pieces lose their autonomy. The dramatic installation simultaneously reveals too little and too much. The individual pieces hint at the quirky psychology of Pugay’s paintings, but without the depth of consideration that make his canvases so remarkable. They seem to be sketches in the true sense, that they represent ideas that haven’t been thoroughly worked through. Yet, in its quantity, After Swimming begins to feel redundant; the wry expressions of animals appear just often enough to lose their charm, and the awkward posing of human bodies begins to feel mannered.
The remaining chapters of the exhibition, divided unimaginatively into sculpture, painting and prints, seem to be afterthoughts within a heedless installation. Tiny painted sculptures of both cats and meditating men were placed on the ledge of the front windows where they are easy to miss. Given Jeffry Mitchell’s tour de force of sculptural animal forms in the adjacent PDX Contemporary gallery, this work feels conspicuously unresolved.
A trio of 22”x30” screen prints were stacked vertically on a small wall, hidden from direct view; I suspect the average viewer never even saw those pieces, which were some of the most powerful work in the show. Pugay’s paintings, which really should have been the focus of the exhibition, were hung in two unflattering constellations that did less to promote the unique narrative of each piece and more to create visual clutter, allowing the bright colors of the paintings to become their own distraction. Given the importance of titles in understanding the intention of Pugay’s work, it was especially thoughtless to hang works in a manner that left the viewer clumsily searching the checklist, trying to uncover the undisclosed logic of how a cluster of images is represented in a column of titles. Overall, the installation didn’t seem to take into account what Pugay’s work is and consequently created layers of unnecessary barriers to understanding it.
Pugay’s strength comes in his dual role as storyteller and moralist. He’s neither preachy nor churchy, rather he embraces an openness and sensitivity that seems to seek out differences to embrace, taking the notion of “everybody’s welcome” to a proactive extreme. He is neither New Agey, nor does he adhere to the stifling conventions of academic multiculturalism. Pugay paints scenes that are wacky disavowals of judgement. He creates absurd fantasy worlds in which notions of acceptability have disappeared, as offering acceptance is just another layer of reductive assessment. In Pugay’s world, things simply are what they are, and this is very much a moral proposition.
Plastic Witch, one of three screen prints stacked on the back side of a narrow wall is profound in so far as it could easily be seen as mocking, but instead provides a singular sincerity. Drawn in Pugay’s signature cartoonish style, though rendered in a coarse, bespeckling, multicolor halftone. The print is a takeoff on the familiar cinematic image of the witch at her brew. Instead of leading with the grotesque face and warted nose of the Hollywood witch, Pugay’s character is obscured at top by her conical hat and in front by one of the 14 lava lamps that stand in for a bubbling cauldron. The titular character, what can be seen of her, looks youthful and vibrant, a suburbanite testing an occult fantasy. In her world, eye of newt has been abandoned for the more accessible plastic wonderland of the local Hot Topic store, providing a sophisticated dismissal of the human versus nature dichotomy. The image fronts as a joke, but there’s no judgement, no punchline. It’s a depiction of a just world, one in which esoteric and exoteric exist harmoniously, at the same time, within the same person.
In Dogs and Death, also a screen print made with a coarse halftone, the Grim Reaper appears large at center in the foreground. The blade of his iconic sickle rests just above the crest of his hood, while a bright yellow whistle hangs against the purple folds of his robe. Six dogs are following, each with a leash swinging wildly behind, and a look that borders both dopey and deranged. The dogs seem to have abandoned their owners at the Reaper’s call. Beyond that, there are more options than answers, which is what one hopes for in art. There’s an irony that the same whistle that called these dogs to the fervent attention of their loving families could be bringing them headlong to their demise. It seems very Pugay to flatten out the signification of the whistle, to give it a dual purpose that’s both conventional and morbid. However, one might also see the dogs as being called to dinner. The most beloved pet dogs are still omnivorous scavengers, and following the reaper would provide them with an endless supply of fresh meat. Pugay’s dogs are cute, all shag and spots and wagging tongues. They are lovable and we tend to think that the feelings we have for our pets are reciprocated, that their status has been elevated by our care, and that they have risen somehow above nature. It would seem equally Pugay to refute that with the simple fact that no matter how refined, dogs will eat whatever is put before them.
The paintings in the exhibit are very much what Pugay is known for: cartoonish style, bright colors and strangely imaginative depictions of worlds made complete by the artist’s brush. Within the canvases in the show is a healthy dose of anthropomorphism. Natural Beauties depicts beauty queen caterpillars in a parklike setting, one crossing a tiny bridge built to the larva’s tiny scale. Palme d’Or of Dinosaurs appears as a montage for a prehistoric film festival with the cast of celebrity reptiles in the foreground as a chorus of tiny cavemen are reduced to extras occupying the background. Crazy Rich Turtles, through a trick of visual perspective wild enough to make Cézanne blush, seems at once celebratory and suspicious. Anthropomorphism generally works by elevating the viewer, providing them with something cute and relatable but which ultimately reinforces the power of culture over nature. Pugay resists this common mechanism by consciously revealing his own game. In A Creature Open to Metaphors, a scaly green sea creature, lying on striped towel, weeps while sunning itself on a litter strewn beach. From the expression on this sensitive creature’s face, it is understood that it, like all of Pugay’s characters, are capable of symbolic logic. Yet, the work also gets at how domination is achieved through interpretation. We wouldn’t even try to understand the sea monster on its own terms, so its worth is dependent on the whims of similitude. This reveals the hollow limits of our power while recognizing the creature’s sovereignty. The use of animals in Pugay’s paintings comes less from a desire to dichotomize, and more from a free flow of thoughts, a leveling out of interests and an openness to understanding the influence of both our innate and cultural desires.
As an exhibition, A Spiritual Guide to Brute Force falls apart the moment one enters the gallery. It feels more like a stylized studio visit, full of rough drafts and false starts. It privileges a diversity of working modes over showcasing Pugay’s intricate insights. The extraordinary intelligence of his work is very much there, but it’s buried just enough to discourage grappling with its significance.