“It’s so postmodern,” an artist friend recently quipped about Ruth Root’s exhibition at Andrew Kreps. After a beat, he added, “in a good way.” The categorization may seem passé, but the theoretical movement’s tenets—to question the authenticity of authorship and the high/low cultural divide—resonated with the paintings presented in Root’s show. What the New York-based artist adds to the discourse is a contemporary subtext about gendered labor often absent from postmodernism’s playful, ahistorical mode of pastiche. In an art world where references to technology and zombie formalism are easily legible market tropes, Root’s off-kilter compositions provide a refreshing counterbalance.
The show consisted of seven large untitled works (all 2014-15) employing fabric, plexiglass panels and paint. The fabrics, designed by Root and digitally printed, function as a support system for the shaped plexi elements: the cloth is stitched into a double layer and looped through various openings in the panels, then secured to the wall via industrial grommets. The process illustrates a new direction for Root’s abstract work. Previously, she explored modernist motifs through precise, flat applications of paint on grounds including thin aluminum sheets, the works recalling computer-screen displays. Her new works depend on an inventive, sculptural sense of balance and weight, combined with a visual sense that eschews strict modernist notions of good taste.
Within each composition, Root oscillates between expressivity and mechanical-seeming mark-making. The plexiglass panes feature sections of geometric shapes and stripes crisply painted in enamel as well as areas of more loosely applied stripes and dots in enamel or spray paint. Root does not devote herself exclusively to either hard-edge formalism or a personalized, hand-drafted minimalism but seems to travel freely between the two.
Her whimsically patterned fabrics also explore the tension between expression and industrial reproduction. One fabric piece—a trapezoidal shape with scalloped edges—features what appear to be random splotches of pink, white and beige paint against a muddy background. It loops under a much bigger plexi panel on which areas of stripes and spray-painted dots play against an expanse of hunter-green enamel. In another instance, a ziggurat-shaped fabric section sports a series of brightly colored geometric forms—a design nodding to the Bauhaus, but probably created in Photoshop. The pattern contrasts loudly with the wavering brown-and-white diagonal stripes on the panel hanging beneath. A third work exploits the fuzzy division between textile design and painting to dizzying effect. A dark fabric with fluffy cloudlike forms supports an equally dark panel on which Root has spray-painted dots. The eyes dart from fabric to panel, causing negative and positive space to recede in equal measure.
Root’s fabric architecture is in itself a phenomenon to behold, with crisscrossing folds made to secure heavier panels with as few fastening devices as possible. The strategy appears to implicitly critique gendered labor, with the cloth—coded with associations of maintenance, domesticity and traditional women’s work—literally holding up the paintings. The seeming sincerity of this act, along with the overall visual weirdness of the exhibition, shows Root to be somewhere between modernist faith and postmodern skepticism. Or perhaps she is way past the postmodernists, embracing their intellectual stance while avoiding their sputtered-out slick irony.