New York

Leigh Ruple, Nightlight, 2017, oil on canvas, 16 x 20".

Leigh Ruple, Nightlight, 2017, oil on canvas, 16 x 20".

Leigh Ruple

Morgan Lehman Gallery

Leigh Ruple, Nightlight, 2017, oil on canvas, 16 x 20".

However improbable—given the bleak current national mood—the self-congratulatory strain of American modernist painting known as Precisionism is again in vogue. The Jazz Age movement, known for its sleek depictions of industry that tend to fall just on the romantic side of Photorealism—which mostly subsided in favor of more comforting figural works as the Great Depression (and American Regionalism) rolled in—is the subject of an upcoming survey at San Francisco’s de Young Museum. Less surprisingly, the aesthetic has popped up in contemporary painting, where its signature, evenly gradated planes have been flattened and distilled to their extremes. The effect is one of gentle rebuke, as if to say, “Look what subtleties your unqualified idealism has cost us!” To these artists’ ranks, one can add Leigh Ruple, whose recent paintings gaze at the Manhattan skyline as one might from the vantage of an unheated studio in Queens. Ruple’s scenes, composed of flat, clearly delineated shapes nestled to suggest dimension and shadow, evoke the Precisionist Charles Sheeler’s renderings of factories from the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. Like Sheeler’s celebrated industrial depictions, they are cold, crystalline things, suggesting the low, blue light of winter. But Ruple trains her eye on Brooklyn’s unglamorous corners. She homes in on the weeds that gather frost in sidewalk cracks, and feral cats that roam empty, frozen-over lots at night.

For all of their deadpan insistence on place (one canvas, depicting a droll figure in a NEW YORK sweatshirt, is titled New York, 2017), some of the assembled works approach generality in their documentation of urban life. (This may be in part because the artist makes a study of each tableau from memory and then returns to the site to flesh out spatial details after the fact.) Far weirder and more tender is Nightlight, 2017, in which the city figures only by suggestion. Here, Ruple presents a nighttime portrait of a couple in bed. The subject on the left gazes out, her face lit from the right as if illuminated by the amber glow of a streetlight. The figure’s left eye is egg-like—a saffron pupil nestled in a milky iris—while the unlit eye is rendered in the same ochre tones as her reclining body. The work’s composition is split diagonally by a yellow strand of her hair that forms an S curve from the crown of her head at top left to her spotlit hand and shoulder at bottom right, while gradated bands moving from orange to dark brown place the rest of her body in a warm shadow. Meanwhile, her peacefully sleeping partner recedes into a cool uniform gray. This tonal juxtaposition, borrowed from basic color theory, visually establishes the disconnect between its subjects.

Also striking, and looser, are three small colored-pencil works on paper. They again show the city (as skyline, street corner, and sidewalk in Spring Vignette #1, 2017; Lovers Way #1, 2017; and Untitled, 2014; respectively), but their forms are all the more affecting for the marks with which the artist has built them up. Dispensing with the uniform gradients and flat silhouettes that characterize her oils on canvas, these studies are playful and dynamic. Via myriad parallel and crosshatched lines, Ruple lets gesture sneak back in. Instead of the hard geometry of her oils, the drawings recall the folk vernacular of artists such as Martín Ramírez, and their delicately wrought compositions explode with irregular, imbricated blades of grass and scrawled spirals of wind. Nor does Ruple’s visual wit suffer for the slackening of artistic reins in these preliminary studies. Her talent for tweaking color relationships to uncanny effect shines brightest in these three freewheeling sketches. 

Cat Kron