Reviews of the work of Ruth Mordecai

Keith Powers Review of Works on Paper 2016

Art New England Website Conversation with the Artist: Works on paper 2016

By Cate McQuaid
Boston Globe August 19, 2014
Not just surface
(see Photo of “Container Series #1.” 60” x 74” on web site)

Sculptor-turned-painter Ruth Mordecai’s exhibition at Trident Gallery nimbly revolves around a lexicon of forms: a moon, a sun, containers, a Jacob’s ladder. These basic shapes, along with a scrawling line, shuffle and recur throughout her abstract work. She freights them with everyday holiness.
In “Aleph-Bet/ Jonathan’s Wagon/ Home,” she collages a rectangle of brown paper near the bottom, from which a pink head-and-shoulders shape sprouts. This wagon sits low within a peaked, architectural outline, as Hebrew letters and other calligraphic gestures float around it, suggesting a halo or a rising prayer. Mordecai paints with a physicality that made me want to close my eyes and run my hands over her art. Collaging, drawing into the paint, and roughing up the surface, she makes work as tactile as it is visual. Many of the pieces have titles such as “Between Painting and Sculpture.” 
It’s not just surface. Mordecai’s forms have weight. The vessel in “Container Series #1,” pale with black contours, almost thrusts itself off the canvas with two fist-like baubles of paint pushing toward a corner, and a collaged strip of red at the bottom.
Her palette often starts with black and white, as in the monotypes in the “Seven Series/ Stacks” group. They depict a central form with two horizontal passages at the bottom, topped by several vertical strokes — like a birthday cake with several candles. In smoky, smeary black ink, the effect is of an elemental, grounded form, threatened with dissolution. That’s intriguing, because her paintings have such solidity, as if their subject matter is everything that endures.

—Judith Tolnick Champa
Independent Curator & Editor-at-Large, Art New England

“As seen across several media comprising this exhibition, Ruth Mordecai’s creative accomplishment is enormous. She never ceases to explore….”
Complete review below:

On Ruth Mordecai’s New Works on Paper 2014 at Trident Gallery, Gloucester, MA

Ruth Mordecai is an artist who knows her strengths. She confidently constructs works on paper—paintings, collages and monotypes— with the gesture and markings of one thoroughly grounded in three-dimensional practice. Emerging from a background in sculpture she develops a particular coloration and variable sense of volumetric layering into a highly subjective sense of the two-dimensional. Through painting she seeks and discovers a visual container for multiple sensations and feelings and in the process conveys a distinctive sense of pictorial conviction. This all makes for a fascinating encounter.

Like other contemporary artists, Mordecai considers herself a kind of hybrid, and says, “I think my strength is that I come to painting from sculpture.” Mordecai’s surfaces are generally complex, heavily worked, many are collaged, and all are full of the expressive processes of their making. Emphasizing her hybrid realm, in the current exhibition are two works, a large-scale painting and monotypes, both overtly entitled Between Painting and Sculpture.

Mordecai’s autographic imaging practice is evident throughout the exhibition. Within this matrix the recent works seem also to account for experiencing, rather than representing, the cradling of arks, the intricacy of lines etched into an ancient carved terracotta vessel, or the iconography of biblical stories like Jacob’s Ladder.

As she paints and draws Mordecai subtly and expertly integrates her sources, some forever close to her from time spent in Jerusalem. Jewishness is a factor that keeps surfacing, she says. It is a kind of grounding for her, “a history both compelling and tragic.” Additionally she explains, “I sense with these recent works that I am summarizing and collecting some of the symbols I have used over many years.” Certainly some of these symbols are ancient, tribal, while others are recent, familial, including her living and working on Cape Ann, Boston’s north shore. One of Mordecai’s persistent motifs is the sun itself, as illustrated by the painting on this announcement, one of several Ancient Suns in various media shown at Trident.

Ancient Sun’s immediacy, even urgency, bears a relationship to the structures of early Abstract Expressionist painting. William Baziotes, Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko come to mind, but it is also the progenitor Hans Hofmann and his early 40’s Provincetown landscapes that are conjured in her large collage painting, Container Series #1. As elsewhere, Mordecai’s residual representation of a place or view, with a horizon, gives way afresh to abstraction and simplification. She tends to craft a thick surface, to favor square formats, and to use a palette that disengages from any clear connotation of coastal landscape.

The current exhibition notably contains several monotypes called Seven Series/Stacks. The richly graphic prints seem to respond to successive sensations. The Stacks evoke architectural structures in landscape settings, each suggesting astonishing mass and volume well beyond their actual dimensions.

As seen across several media comprising this exhibition, Ruth Mordecai’s creative accomplishment is enormous. She never ceases to explore, as attested by her five-foot square Ancient Sun, painted on three sheets of paper, mounted on two panels, in progress as I write. The mountainous sun image rises (or sets?) as a figure that possesses the fractured, irregular ground it occupies, prominently a Jacob’s ladder-like double bisection occurring off-center, partnering earth and sky. Color planes, glyphs and meanders emerge against the upper sun-like form and spill onto its counterpart black shape below. As elsewhere, exhibition wide, tensions abound. Yet visual order ultimately emerges from Mordecai’s concentrated engagement with painting as a sustaining sensory response organizing her many sensations and worlds.

—Judith Tolnick Champa
Independent Curator & Editor-at-Large, Art New England

Sheldon Ackley
Former President of the Ethical Culture Society, NYC. Excerpt from a letter from this collector
"Dear Ruth,
I love it, love it, love it. You've blown my mind. I've been working for ten years now on a project, which is my message to the world and my awakening. And now you come along on a quest of your own and model what I am trying to say. For you, your sculpture: 'Arch, 7 Series, Sacred Place, Life-Line', for me, all these and the dream of a metaphysician-ethicist, 'Spiraling, Being.' Thank you so very, very much."

Dr. Roger Lipsey
Author of An Art of Our Own: The Spiritual in Twentieth Century Art, Shambala Publishers

"To my mind there are few if any American artists as acutely attuned as she is, or better endowed imaginatively and technically, to address certain issues of real import. In our era of "postmodern" anxiety, irony, and an incoherent combination of brittle intellectuality and undisguised commercialism in the arts, Ruth Mordecai is following her inner daemon toward what I take to be the central issue: exploring in strictly contemporary visual idiom the large and perennial human questions-- philosophical and religious questions, the question of the human community and our shared symbols."

John Walsh
Former Director / Getty Museum, Malibu, CA

"...Boston gallery Director, Helen Shlien has a marvelous eye for new artists, but these sculptures and drawings were no ordinary debut...the artist obviously had a strong, mature sensibility. I wasn't surprised when the Boston Museum of Fine Arts bought one of the drawings from the show.... I am impressed by her move toward more stable forms that are partly body, partly building. I don't know another artist doing "architectonic" sculpture that has such heartfelt human resonances...."

Christine Temin
"Turning Ancient History into Modern Marvels." The Boston Globe

"Mordecai offers bold sculptures and works on paper, linked by their common concern with energy that makes the materials seem as if they're evolving on the spot. Whether working in clay, steel or oil paints, her art has a purity and force...."

Anne Krinsky
Art New England (click for article)

Outside-In: Gordon Goetemann, Ruth Mordecai and Jon Sarkin, Rockport Art Association, Rockport, MA
"Between Drawing and Sculpture, a blocky oil stick and graphite drawing of a back, brings to mind Matisse's series of bronze backs, while the monumental arch of Armature Series VI Back, a sixty-eight by forty-two-inch oil collage, veers towards architecture."

Dr. Ori Z. Soltes
Former Director / B'nai Brith Jewish Museum, Washington, DC
Author of Fixing the World: Jewish American Painters in the Twentieth Century,
Brandeis University Press, 2003

"Ruth Mordecai is a child of liberal American Judaism: She thinks simultaneously and without contradiction, in specifically Jewish and broadly universal terms; her spirituality is both Jewishly focused and non-denominational. The Seven Series (1990), which followed after her Holy Ark, was intended as a non-denominational shaping of space in which to celebrate and meditate. One thinks immediately of Rothko's Chapel paintings in Houston, Texas: one is surrounded by rich, dark and calm color and simplified form.... Moreover, these heroically scaled works... are reminiscent of Rothko, in our being surrounded by them.... They are simultaneously sources of reflection and celebration. They restore order to the universe in the aftermath of the multiple horrors in this century, which have torn the world apart."

Taryn Plumb
Artscope (click for article)

Alicia Faxon
Art New England
November/December 2010 Ruth Mordecai - Dreams and Symbols, Works on Paper, Soprafina Gallery, Boston

"Ruth Mordecai is an artist of abstract paintings and collages, often exploring a theme within a series, 'Works on Paper' is somewhat misleading if you expect small, discreet images. Some of these paintings are as large as 60" x 40" and are on gessoed rag paper, created with acrylic, oil paint, oil stick, graphite and collage. They are commanding even overwhelming in their presence and gestural thrust...Mordecai's work is symbolic, even mystic, yet always grounded in everyday experiences and aspirations."

Meredith Fife Day
Art New England

"...Ruth Mordecai's work is monumental and assertive. Its impact is immediate...neither humanism nor intimacy was sacrificed with her movement away from the figure. By creating outside the imagery known and familiar to her, she has taken on a new authority. At the heart of the authority are the strength, energy and humility to take risks...." Expressive brushwork suggests the sensual and physical touch Mordecai uses with clay. Symbols are summoned from the world of the senses. The tree of life dangles and spills apples from an orchard of the artist's childhood, their fragrance recalled in a written narrative. The paintings have a personal eclecticism about them; the light of seascapes and references to ancient ceremonial objects are depicted through the filter of memory...."

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