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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

A Penchant for Brightness

Ruth Grotenrath at Elaine Erickson Gallery

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When looking at a painting by Ruth Grotenrath, it is hard not to feel exuberant. Her paintings, particularly from the 1940s onward, plunge us into the delights of a bright palette and complex rhythms of pattern, manifest through still lifes both ordinary and exotic.

Grotenrath is a Milwaukee artist through and through. She was born in the city in 1912, then educated, married and settled on the East Side with her husband and fellow artist, Schomer Lichtner. Their names are inveterately linked, which is what makes the solo showing of Grotenrath's work at Elaine Erickson Gallery especially refreshing.

The exhibition is a thoughtful display of her art. It is more than a bunch of pictures hanging on the walls, as there is a chronological organization to the display, augmented by discreet and concise wall text. With this, the transformation of her approach can be seen as quite dramatic. In the 1930s, Grotenrath tended toward a darker, earthy palette, and her naturalistic skill in drawing is readily clear. Despair (1937) is a single, seated woman, robed and veiled in blue-gray. Head in hands, her deep eyes are shadowed, contemplating an unknown sadness. However, even here is a foreshadowing of Grotenrath's penchant for brightness. Her arms and clothing surface glow with warm light and, despite the melancholy title, the image calls to mind a deflated day, albeit under the luscious, golden sun of Italy.

The neutral palette of these early years is gradually shed for brighter hues, often painted in casein, a milk-based form of tempera paint. With rich pigments, Grotenrath explored the love of pattern with excitement and eloquence. She developed a style uniquely her own, though influences of other artists and traditions can be detected. Susan J. Montgomery's 2011 monograph, In Celebration: The Life and Art of Ruth Grotenrath, describes her as having an interest in the French artist Paul Cezanne. He was known for many subjects, among them still lifes of apples where brushwork and color describe surfaces while rendering them ambiguously strange. Grotenrath similarly takes on fruit as a recurring motif in still lifes—pears, with their tantalizing round and oblong forms, were a favorite—but she is consistently like an architect in her delineation of solid, discernible structures. She investigates form and design by steamrolling things into a flattened, gorgeous play of lines and relatively clean contours.

Grotenrath's compositional strategies focus our vision on a relatively small piece of the world: a wall, a table, a chair, the occasional lounging cat, all found within close proximity to her home studio. An injection of the exotic comes through Chinese and Japanese references, which were also part of the decoration of the Grotenrath-Lichtner household. These sound like intensely autobiographical elements, but the story that is told is more particularly of aesthetic pleasure. All the delight of painting is distilled through concentrated and localized arrangements, colored deliciously exciting.

“Celebrating Ruth Grotenrath—Six Decades: 1920s-1980s” continues through April 14 at Elaine Erickson Gallery, 207 E. Buffalo St., Suite 120.
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