Ruby Palmer: Painter with a Kaleidoscope Eye

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Ruby Palmer with dog, “Oscar,” in her studio in Red Hook, NY, Photo credit: Yuko Yamamoto

Ruby Palmer’s new acrylic and Flashe paintings, currently on display in her solo show Shift at Morgan Lehman through June 30, look like colorfully doodled Rorschach tests. Each work is densely populated with swirling kaleidoscopic symbols like flowers, feathers, and geometric shapes, all set over jewel-toned or neutral grounds. At her previous exhibition with the gallery, she showed wall sculptures made up of painted clusters of basswood, and her new paintings seem to take those networks of wood a step further and expand them outward like Hoberman spheres in a big-bang fashion. It was my pleasure to speak with her and find out more about this exciting new direction in her work.

I’ve always admired how you embrace change in your work. Your current show of paintings at Morgan Lehman marks a shift from your last exhibition with the gallery (Assembly, May 21, 2021) where you showed mainly sculptural work: painted wood wall constructions and a large wall-sized hanging painted fabric piece (Quilter’s Lament 2020). The title of your new show is even called Shift. How important is the freedom to shift across subjects, styles and mediums to your practice?

It’s extremely important. I like to learn from one type of making, bring it into the next project, and then often circle back. It’s not always an expected, linear, or even predictable route. A hanging 3D sculpture can really free up the making of a painting, and vice versa. Even material for one thing could end up on a different work. Making a large temporary installation as I did for Turley Gallery (Oct. 2022) was enormously helpful in making the current paintings at Morgan Lehman which are in a very different format. At Turley Gallery, being able to move through actual space, use my body and physical abilities to install the work gave me a lot of ideas to use in the paintings as far as spatial relationships, letting the decorative co-exist with the architectural, honing in on the images that keep popping up in my vocabulary, and furthering my explorations into a kind of domestic surrealism. I find I come up against the same challenges no matter what medium or scale, and in this sense, moving around becomes a method to keep ahead of my own limitations, to trick myself into surprise beginnings or endings.

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Fan, 2023, acrylic, Flashe, and acrylic paint pen on canvas, 48” x 36″, Courtesy Morgan Lehman Gallery, Photo credit: Chris Kendall, ©Ruby Palmer
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Installation view of Ruby Palmer’s 2021 exhibition, Assembly, at Morgan Lehman Gallery (wall sculptures and Quilter’s Lament 2020), Courtesy Morgan Lehman Gallery

Let’s talk about doodling. Artists from Sol Le Witt to Charles Burchfield to Romare Bearden were known as inveterate doodlers. The paintings in Shift seem to materialize from a stream of consciousness, with small shapes squeezing into the spaces left over by a dense layered network of teetering architecture, feathers and flowers. In a previous artist talk at Turley Gallery (Hudson) you showed some framed digital sketches and mentioned that you doodle before bed on your tablet to flesh out ideas. Did preparatory doodles also go into this new body of work?

I think of doodling as free drawing without much agenda or thinking, using a kind of subconscious impulse. In this sense, yes. The small works on paper came first, and they were born out of a series of cut paper works from 2019-2020, where I was playing around with repeating imperfect forms, lines, and loops that made a cohesive whole. The new works incorporate more decorative elements—polka dots, stripes, color fades, diamond shapes, repeating wavy lines, etc (the doodles). They are impulsive at first and then they get more refined as they go, until by the end I’ve got out the tiniest brush or pen to sharpen things up. Casual drawing or doodling or sketching can often be the most honest and open of work—I’m very interested in this. It’s generally not self-conscious.

In 2021, I’d moved from my barn studio, which was cramped and very close to our house, into a bigger, brighter studio in the neighboring town. I wanted to work much larger, and to finally make the big paintings I’d been imagining. This has been a major change for my work and psyche. How can a small work translate on a much bigger format? If you scale up minutia, what happens? I wanted to feel like I could crawl into the work, really inhabit it.

I made and still make the smaller drawings at my table at home, or reclining with my iPad, which also feels significant, because there’s usually a lot going on at home, and I like having this project going that can get interrupted and re-entered without much consequence. I often think of the women who make quilt squares at home, or knitters, who have something to do that can be picked up and put down as need be. Very different from painting, where things are drying and changing if you leave for 20 minutes to give someone a ride or make lunch, and for which you need a designated workspace. I have a sturdy lidded box that I shuttle back and forth with me from house to studio, so I can see the work together with what’s going on in the studio. The paintings are usually not direct copies of the smaller studies, but I want them to have the same language, proportions and qualities.

On my iPad, I can use cut and paste to move things around and repeat motifs or draw on top of images of existing work.

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Conundrum 2022, archival digital print on rag paper, 14” x 11”, Courtesy of the artist ©Ruby Palmer

Your work is infused with a spirit of play, and I remember you saying that games and whimsy have always been central themes in your work. Drawing app sketches, mini-golf, game boards, rug patterns, and “feminine” iconography like flowers and feathers all seem to go into the mix. I’m interested in the winking humor in your paintings and drawings, as it’s rare to find in contemporary art. As an artist, is it ok to find the fun?

Humor is one of the best parts of life, and I love certain humor in art, often a bit subversive or winking, as you say. Not that I want to be laughing when I look at art, but I think it’s pretty good if someone can include humor in the mix. Or at least surprise. Games and play bring out interesting and often previously unknown parts of human beings, as does art. That said, my general disposition in the studio is fairly serious, at times too much so. Listening to music helps keep things buoyant.

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Life Force 2023, acrylic, Flashe, and acrylic paint pen on linen mounted on canvas, 84” x 64″, Courtesy Morgan Lehman Gallery, Photo credit: Chris Kendall, ©Ruby Palmer

Recently we spoke about the essentialness of Yellow and how it’s an integral player in your palette. In your work in general, I’ve noticed that you tend to use muted jewel tones. Could you tell me more about why you gravitate to certain colors in your work?

Color provides endless evocative possibilities. I tend to like muted colors combined with brighter ones and find that satisfying to look at because it provides different kinds of harmonies and moods. I think a lot about chords in music, what that might look like visually, and how to integrate that into my work. There’s rhythm, structure, sound, and color in art. I’m always searching for new color combinations that I can connect to in an emotive way. I take a lot of cues from both nature (I walk a lot) and the colors of clothing, interior design, unmixed paint colors from the jar, and vintage graphic art. My women friends’ sense of color in their dress and houses is often inspiring. It’s often a question, not an answer. What catches my eye? What makes me look twice? What happens if this is next to this?

Once as I was driving, I took note of every color combination along the road that I felt was singing. This included things like one tree bark’s brown against another, the green of the small road signs next to the yellower green of the grass, next to the black road with yellow lines, someone’s faded blue mailbox with a red flag on a wood post with an electric blue round reflector, a goldfinch on a grey branch with a pale sky—stuff like that. Just really basic observations, notes to myself. What was striking to me was how specific I was and how many moments did nothing for me, just passed on by. There is a specific something that we as artists respond to, and fortunately different artists point out different things. I’m very fond of using a color that I find difficult or don’t like at all and putting it with something that makes it vibrate and tolerable. Yellow is just so potent and full of light. Plus it’s not always easy.

All of My Love, 2023, acrylic, Flashe, and acrylic paint pen on canvas, 48″ x 40″”, Courtesy Morgan Lehman Gallery, Photo credit: Chris Kendall, ©Ruby Palmer

It seems that a new theme has emerged in this exhibition: that of mirroring. The works have an inkblot quality as if they were folded once and then opened up again along a vertical seam. For example, in All of My Love 2023, a translucent white zinnia-like bloom holds the center, while ghostly feathers and leaves descend vertically and splay out symmetrically across a densely-doodled field of fuchsia, red and pink. Could you tell me more about the doubling happening in your newest paintings?

The doubling happened over the past few years and began while I was trying to design some wallpaper and fabric. I started putting my drawings/paintings into mirror mode on my phone to try it out as one form of a repeat. It was interesting to see the images that way, and it felt powerful somehow. Would they also make good large paintings? It spurred me on, but I didn’t like the perfection of the computer version, nor did I like the faces that started to appear. I was more interested in asymmetry within symmetry.

I have fraternal twin girls and am constantly balancing their dual energies. Doubling felt familiar. The folded or mirrored format is a structure to act within, and remain grounded, though not stagnant. I think the format also reflects my body on some level, one’s body, in that it’s vertical, and the center would represent our spine, with similar but different things happening on either side. When we “picture” our inner bodies, we see all kinds of space between things that in reality is all squished together. But everything is connected, and asymmetrical. Our houses are yet another system that we live in, and again everything is connected within that system. The structure of this work also provides some stability for my mental health that I have trouble finding in our current world.

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Ruby Palmer’s studio in Red Hook, NY, Photo courtesy of the artist

Ruby Palmer’s Shift is up through June 30, 2023 at Morgan Lehman Gallery 526 West 26th Street, Suite 410, New York. A show of collages by Raymond Saá is also up at the gallery.

About the artist: Ruby Palmer was born in Boston, MA and grew up in rural Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. Trained as an abstract painter at Hampshire College (BA 1992), she started experimenting with sculpture and installation at the School of Visual Arts (MFA 2000). She was awarded a Joan Mitchell Foundation Grant for Painters and Sculptors 1999. Exhibitions venues include the Albany International Airport (Albany, NY); The Samuel Dorsky Museum (New Paltz, NY); Morgan Lehman Gallery (NYC); Woodstock Byrdcliff Guild, (Woodstock, NY); LABspace (Hillsdale, NY); Jeff Bailey Gallery (Hudson, NY); Page Bond Gallery (Richmond, VA); Geoffrey Young Gallery (Great Barrington, MA); Instar Lodge (Germantown, NY); and Smack Mellon (Brooklyn, NY). Palmer has worked and lived in Rhinecliff, NY since 2011.

About the writer: Amy Talluto is a painter, collage artist and sculptor who lives and works in Hurley NY. She was born in New Orleans, LA and earned her BFA from Washington University in St. Louis and her MFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York. In 2018 she was awarded a NYFA/NYSCA Artist Fellowship in Painting and was an Artforum Critics Pick for her solo exhibition at Black & White Gallery (Brooklyn). She has recently shown her work at Auxier Kline Gallery, Jeff Bailey Gallery, The Berkshire Botanical Garden, the Samuel Dorsky Museum, Geoffrey Young Gallery, The Albany Airport and Wave Hill Gardens. She has been an Artist in Residence at the Saltonstall Foundation (NY), Ucross Foundation (WY), Provincetown Dune Shacks & the Byrdcliffe Colony (NY). She is also the host and producer of the Pep Talks for Artists Podcast.