New York

Rodney Ripps

Marisa Del Re Gallery

Rodney Ripps has come a long way, from what I once called (in these pages) his “cosmetic transcendentalism” to transcendentalism pure and simple. He has clarified his work to make the sublimity—the infinite import—of nature transparent. No doubt 19th-century transcendentalism can only have a troubled, compromised existence in 20th-century America, when the nature that once seemed this country’s greatest blessing has become tainted—cursed—by exploitation. We live in its ruins, preserving fragments of it against the day when our indifference to it, often disguised as sentimentalization, will undermine us.

Ripps’ thoughtful new paintings show all the problems of maintaining a transcendental vision in a society that thinks it has mastered nature—that views it only as raw material. (Is what happens to it in our products “refinement?”) Furthermore, all current modes of representing nature seem bankrupt, or at best banal; previous embodiments afford no foothold for a new departure. Ripps responds to this situation by appropriating the stripe painting, with its implication of infinity, and collaging onto it fragments of dead branches symbolizing the defeat of nature. The atmospheric painterliness conveys an allover aura of fatigue, the fatigue both of nature and of abstract painting itself. Yet the works monumentalize the death of nature in abstract form. Berkshire #9, Monument Mountain, 1988, with its token apex, seems to do this most explicitly. A similar stepped effect is used in other works; even when it is absent, the sheer breadth of the canvases conveys the same fallen, oddly forbidding grandeur.

These works also suggest taxidermy. One might call much artmaking today taxidermy with a twist: the usual attempt to make the dead thing seem alive is replaced by an effort to show it as, in fact, dead—perhaps hunted down and killed by the artist. This kind of thanatopic revelation is central to appropriation art. The negative imitation of the masterpiece, or the creation of the mock masterpiece, is the consummation of this tendency. The twist Ripps gives it is not in his choice of the stripe painting but in his attempt to make it serve a nonstylistic purpose—in contrast, say, to Peter Halley’s utilization of hard-edge field painting. Ripps acknowledges that earlier stylistic achievements, in their “renewed” if not exactly reinvigorated form, signal something general about our psychic state and social condition. I don’t know if this extraartistic aspect of Ripps’ paintings works completely—if the death of nature is effectively symbolized—but I am convinced by the paintings’ memento mori character. Such is the success of these works, implying a fatalistic recognition that there is no escape from natural fate.

Donald Kuspit