Ian Ratowsky’s huge portraits on paper give a whole new meaning to “in your face.” Because of their scale (as big as 96 by 61 inches) and subject matter (moody but fetching women) these could easily have succumbed to being earnest homages to elusive femmes fatale. The artist’s technique, however, saves these pieces from terminal prettiness.
Ratowsky works on paper that he makes himself from cactus fiber. He begins by drawing random marks on it with charcoal and conté crayon, and then uses large brushes and other mediums—sumi ink, acrylic, pastel—to create a surface that is scarred, scraped, and gouged. Also contributing to the works’ presence is the sense of personality they convey. The woman in Gaze (2011) is alert and even pugnacious; the spotlit diva in Caribbean Jazz (2011), her mouth open suggestively, seems about to deliver a song or possibly a scream; and the subject of Study of a Nomad (2011), with her deeply shadowed eyes, looks thoroughly dejected.
Though the portraits have a certain outsize charm, even more appealing are Ratowsky’s pictures of dogs and horses. These have an emblematic quality reminiscent of Susan Rothenberg’s early equine paintings. Passages of flat color alternating with more careful modeling give the works a visual punch that makes the portraits of women seem almost overworked. Paintings like Fire Horse (2012), Ghost Horse I and II (both 2014), and Silver Dog (2014) capture the shaggy essence of the beasts without harping on the details, while Sphinx (2014) is a wonderful melding of human and horse, frightening and mysterious.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 101.