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Autobiography As Abstraction

 

In 2001, three curator—Stephen Melville, Laura Lisbon, and Philip Armstrong—organized an exhibition for the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, OH, entitled As Painting: Division and Displacement. In one of the most concise summations of the exhibition’s premise articulated in the accompanying catalogue, Armstrong and Lisbon note “there is nothing in the presentation of the work in As Painting that identifies it in terms other than a questioning of its own identity, nothing here that is not an incessant pursuit of the limits of what painting is, and thus nothing that does not attempt to show painting’s own exteriority—its divisions and displacements—in and as painting.”1 By including work by artists including Donald Judd, Robert Smithson, and Anne Truitt in the exhibition, and insisting that their work be considered as painting, the show effectively argued for a radical broadening of the medium’s ontology, by discounting media as the decisive criteria, and instead focusing on painting as a discursive space.

 

Although this thesis alone has not produced or defined the conditions of abstract “painting” in the 21st century, the curators’ contention aligns seamlessly with the work of a young generation of artists today who pursue and produce painterly effects, and engage conventional painterly problems, without squeezing paint out of a tube or mixing pigment with water. One interesting consequence of this still-new focus on the discursive space of painting, as opposed to a narrowly defined, medium-specific one, is that artists can remain connected to the world around them on the literal level of materials, while still producing objects that engage the pictorial conventions of paint on canvas. This tendency can be and has been called many things: social abstraction, painting by other means, or unpainted painting; no doubt other descriptions have been coined.2

 

Ian Ruffino’s work participates in this emergent tradition. Obdurately abstract in appearance, his work is, in fact, a frankly autobiographical enterprise, perhaps not representational, but certainly representative and very much of the world. Made very often from clothes Ruffino has purchased and worn, his works are as much of him as by him. One of his earliest mature works, Blue Outfit, Winter (2004), is an emphatic example. Identified as a screen-print on embossed paper, the work is substantially more complex in structure and concept than that media line would suggest. The origin point for Blue Outfit, Winter, and for many works to follow, was Ruffino’s decision—a formal decision in the artistic sense and a lifestyle choice as well—to limit his wardrobe to a palette of blues. Ranging in origin from Comme des Garçons to the local thrift store, these clothes were worn and washed over the course of two winters. The collected garments were then pulverized, compressed and embossed to produce a roughly square support, more like particleboard than paper in thickness.3 Ruffino then used this palimpsest as the ground for a slightly raggedy, off-white square, applied to the surface using a simple acrylic silkscreen technique. The result is a deceptively elemental object, years in the making, that balances formal experimentation with what might be called material autobiography.4

 

Although few of Ruffino’s subsequent works are as hard-won as Blue Outfit, Winter, many follow the same logic of production: garments purchased and worn by the artist are variously manipulated to form the ground for an abstract composition. The support—whether stretched thin or thickly dense—is an account of a life lived outside the studio, but always in anticipation of that eventual fate. Thus, Ruffino connects art production unavoidably to a social narrative, turning the traditionally inward facing, existential terms of abstraction, abstract painting in particular, on their heads to realize a body of work that will always be an account of his life, as much as it is a record of aesthetic choices. Almost certainly Ruffino did not set out to produce anything like a painting or to be called of all things a painter, and in any past generation, that term would not have been used to describe what he does. But in the present, the laden material connection he has developed between his work and the world around him is strikingly emblematic of what abstract painting has become, and is becoming.

 

 

Christopher Bedford

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 Philip Armstrong and Laura Lisbon, “As Painting: Problematics” in Philip Armstrong, Laura Lisbon, and Stephen Melville, As Painting: Division and Displacement (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2001), 28

2 “Unpainted Paintings” was the title of an exhibition organized by Alison Gingeras in 2011 for Luxembourg and Dayan gallery in New York.

3 It is interesting to note that because Ruffino’s clothes are also art supplies, he is able to claim them as a tax exemption.

4 Another work in this exhibition, Uniform Restraint (2006), is made from the lint Ruffino collected from washing the clothing that became Blue Outfit, Winter.

http://ianruffino.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Microscript-Exit-Detail.jpg
Microscript Exit
screenprint and ballpoint pen on paper hole-punched with holes re-glued into different spaces
23" x 23"
2010
http://ianruffino.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Microscript-Exit-Detail.jpg
Microscript Exit
screenprint and ballpoint pen on paper hole-punched with holes re-glued into different spaces
23" x 23"
2010
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Anonymous Text
gouache on fabric
20" x 20"
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Fiction
gouache on fabric
20" x 20"
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Lake Bottom Mooring
gouache on fabric
20" x 20"
http://ianruffino.com/old/gallery/images/learning_detail.jpg
Learning German Kugelschreiber
ball point pen on paper
18" x 18"
2005
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Missing Pronoun
gouache on fabric
23" x 23"
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Untitled Fiction 1
gouache on fabric
20" x 20"
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Untitled Fiction 2
gouache on fabric
20" x 20"
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Untitled Fiction 3
gouache on fabric
20" x 20"
Writer
gouache on fabric
20" x 20"
http://ianruffino.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/a-rip-is-a-misfortune-a-stain-is-a-vice-full-detail-.jpg
A rip is Misfortune a stain is a vice
gouache on fabric
20" x 20"
http://ianruffino.com/old/gallery/images/andyouwanther_detail.jpg
and you want her
ink jet, intaglio, serigraphy, watercolor, collage, ballpoint pen, and acrylic on pierced paper and felt
23" x 23" x .5"
2010
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Misspelled word
embossed paper, watercolor, colored pencil, and thread on Arches Text sewn to a stack of hand-made paper
23" x 23" x .5"
2010
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Body of Water, Fixed
an edition of lithographs sewn together with bookbinding thread
20" x 20" x .75"
2009
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Lake Effect
intaglio
20" x 20"
2006
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Downpour
watercolor and colored pencil on cement
20" x 20" x 2"
2006
http://ianruffino.com/old/gallery/images/uniformrestraintdetail.jpg
Uniform Restraint
screenprint and thread on lint
20" x 20"
2006
http://ianruffino.com/old/gallery/images/steelkiltsseadetail.jpg
Steelkilt’s Sea
lithography and intaglio
20" x 20"
2006
http://ianruffino.com/old/gallery/images/blushingdetail.jpg
Blushing
watercolor, offset screenprint, and thread on embossed paper
30" x 30" x .75"
2005
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Sponge
thread, acrylic offset, colored pencil, and watercolor on paper
20" x 20" x .5"
2005
Not Saying Saying
thread, acrylic offset, wite-out, and watercolor on embossed paper
20" x 20"
2005
Sister
acrylic and watercolor on paper
20" x 20" x .5"
2005
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Family Photo
watercolor-offset and acrylic on paper
14" x 14" x 1.25"
2005
Having Only Ever Lived With Women
screenprint, thread, and colored pencil on embossed paper
20" x 20" x .5"
2004
Blue Outfit, Winter
acrylic on embossed paper
20" x 20" x .5"
2004
Traumatic Photograph/ Romantic Collage
offset screenprint, colored pencil, ferric oxide, and acrylic on and in paper
20" x 20" x .5"
2004
http://ianruffino.com/old/gallery/images/allmyveinsreturningdetail.jpg
Stained and Touched-up Romantic Photograph, All My Veins Returning
touch-up paint, screenprint, ferric oxide, spray enamel, and multiple blue materials on paper
20" x 20" x .5"
2003
Stereograph: Cut and Torn
screenprint and acrylic on paper
6" x 12" x .625"
2004
Romantic Photograph #11
screenprint, watercolor, and ferric oxide on paper
20" x 20" x .5"
2002
Romantic Photograph #10
screenprint, watercolor, and spray enamel on paper
30" x 30" x .5"
2002
Romantic Photograph #4
screenprint, watercolor, ferric oxide, and spray enamel on paper
20" x 20" x .25"
2001