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The Seer

Rachel Ranta studies ordinary objects and shows us how to look at the world

The paintings of Rachel Ranta bring to mind the saying "Still waters run deep." Her straightforward images are deceptively simple. Her colors are soft and warm and slightly luminous; the paintings seem to provide their own light. And she has always tended toward quiet subject matter -- weeds, fruit, flowers, clouds. There is a kind of hush to Ranta's paintings, something of the shhhh…that accompanies the first visit to the new baby's nursery.

Her 1997 show at Texas Gallery, "Picture Windows," consisted of five paintings; in each, a single piece of fruit was perched on a ledge before an expanse of sky. Below each image, a phrase had been written in careful Palmer Method script -- "way of life" or "sense of place," common, even banal, phrases that, once removed from any mundane context and paired with such simple imagery, seemed to be informed with a deeper meaning. But, as with a poem or a dream, that deeper meaning eludes explication.

You can try it yourself. A seven-part work, Cloud (1994-2001), is included in the Contemporary Arts Museum's exhibit "The Inward Eye: Transcendence in Contemporary Art" (see "An Introspective" by Kelly Klaasmeyer, January 3). As the titular cloud, framed by a window, makes its way across the sky in each successive painting, it's accompanied by the phrases "time to go," "hard to hide," "year to date," "have to have," "down to earth," "out to lunch" and "fade to black." The phrases seem perfectly apt to their particular paintings, but it's difficult to say quite why or how. The images and phrases combine in a kind of visual/verbal haiku that makes a soft, percussive sound as it drops into your consciousness.

But in "Pedestals," Ranta's current show at Texas Gallery, the phrases have gone away, leaving the subjects of the paintings to fend for themselves. All 17 paintings in the series follow the same format. Vertically oriented, each measures five feet by two feet and is divided into three bands of color: the pedestal, an expanse of dark gray; the surface of the pedestal, a band of receding lighter gray; above, pale gray space. And the objects on the pedestals? For the most part, they are simple ordinary objects of the everyday: flatware, a bar of soap, a glass, a bowl, a pair of shoes, a pencil. The natural world, too, makes some brief cameos, as in Pedestal (Acorn) and Pedestal (Rock). Ranta gets positively exotic with Pedestal (Binoculars) and Pedestal (Microscope).

Of course, the ordinariness of the objects is the point, even with the microscope. (Questioned about it, the artist replied, "Someone gave it to me, it was there, so I painted it.") These are things infused with integrity, anonymous objects bearing no brands or labels, with none of the insecurity that underlies luxury and status items. Pedestal (Glass) is an ordinary tumbler, not Waterford or some other fine crystal. Pedestal (Shoes) presents a pair of plain, sensible shoes, not Manolo Blahniks. Humblest of the humble, Pedestal (Pills) displays two tablets so small they're almost lost in the painting (yet, tiny as they are, they heal). These ordinary things are meticulously observed; the detail -- in the threads of a light bulb, in the eyelets, laces and aglets of a pair of sturdy shoes, in the loop of a binocular strap -- is breathtaking. Even the shadows of these objects, the result of a strong light coming from the left, are finely articulated.

There is an inexorable logic to these works. The dark gray of the pedestals modulates slightly, growing darker where the right angle of the pedestal's top would keep the side in shadow. In the lighter gray space above, the modulation is reversed, with the palest possible gray giving way to a slightly darker tone at the top of the canvas, the space that would be above and beyond the glow from the light source.

And there's a logic to Ranta's limiting herself to shades of gray. It's been said that composition is more important in black-and-white photography because color covers a multitude of sins, and something of that is true here. Color would be a distraction; one might settle for the sensory pleasure of color and miss the more difficult sense of wonder conveyed by the artist's close observation of these objects. A style of painting called grisaille, a monochrome in shades of gray, usually made as a study of the tonal qualities of light and shade in a composition, comes to mind. Though technically not grisaille, these paintings suggest an affinity with that technique. These works are studies, not in the traditional artistic sense of a preparation for some larger, more involved composition, but in the sense of deep engagement with a subject.

And there is a distinction between the objects in these paintings and their subject. That distinction has to do with the difference between looking and seeing. Looking is the mere physical act of visual perception. Seeing begins with looking, of course, but it also involves cognition, comprehension. Looking is passive, uninvolved, unconnected; seeing is active, engaged, aware. Looking provides basic information: It's safe to cross the street; this is the address I'm looking for; that woman (man) is attractive. Seeing goes a bit further, toward something like insight. Looking, we get around in the world; seeing, maybe we feel a little more at home in it. The true subject of Ranta's Pedestal series is not the individual object in each painting, but seeing, really seeing, as an act of engagement with the things of the world.

 
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