Thursday, September 17, 2015

Betty Sapp Ragan Retrospective at UPS

Photo: Boxed,” hand-colored photo collage by Betty Sapp Ragan, collection of Mac Ragan, photo by Ross Mulhausen.

Published in the Weekly Volcano, Sept. 17, 2015

Boxed,” hand-colored photo collage by Betty Sapp Ragan, collection of Mac Ragan, photo by Ross Mulhausen.

I regret that I did not get to see more work by Betty Sapp Ragan or get to know her personally before she died in May 2014. I reviewed a couple of group shows she was in, and I had the pleasure of visiting her studio during last year’s Tacoma Studio Art Tour, where I talked to her about the latest series of paintings she was working on. Now, having seen her retrospective exhibition at Kittredge Gallery, University of Puget Sound, I am convinced that she was an underrated artist — a talent worthy of celebration and honor.
The retrospective surveys  45 years of her paintings, prints, mixed-media objects, and photographs. It was curated by Becky Frehse, instructor, and Janet Marcavage, associate professor in the Art Department at UPS, in collaboration with the artist’s son, Mac Ragan.
Untitled (from Geometry Rising series), by Betty Sapp Ragan, photo by Ross Mulhausen
That final series I saw in the studio tour included paintings with collaged digital prints of buildings in their environments, an inspired series that involved extensive research and meticulous craftsmanship. These large works in acrylic on board, now fill the back room of Kittrege Gallery at UPS.
Painted are the scenes where the buildings were, are, should be, or might have been located. The colors are bright and sunny with a predominance of blue. Everything is painted with precise detail but softly focused, like a cross between photo-realist paintings and pastel drawings. The buildings themselves are digital prints of architectural drawings, mostly black and white line drawings that are collaged into the paintings.
The actual buildings are not in the paintings. Rather, what we see is the settings before the buildings were built. These settings range from open fields to a coastal village to a dense urban scene. In one titled “Bonehouse Here?” we go back to prehistoric times to see a pair of mastodons standing on a glacier, and the drawing of the “house” is an igloo-shaped hut made of animal bones. The two mastodons are the only animals left from the herd, and the bones of their brothers and sisters have been used to make a house. Works such as these may not be exactly surrealistic, but they call reality into question. 
In the front room are photographs, photo collages, prints and paintings. One group of five photo collages depicts buildings that could be from ancient Greece or Rome with women’s dresses in doorways and windows, some hanging and some on dress dummies. They seem natural in the settings and appear to be posed photographs rather than collages, but they jar the senses because the styles are out of keeping with the architecture and the scale is all wrong. Most of the dresses are relatively gigantic, but due to the artist’s careful cropping and arranging it is only on a second or third look that they appear outsized.
Similarly, another wall features five hand-painted photo collages of contemporary women in Renaissance or Middle Age architectural settings. They look hype-realistic but anachronistic.
All of Ragan’s figures and portraits are women or are represented by women’s clothing. Her son said she was a staunch feminist all her life. “As a member of the Guerrilla Girls group in New York in the mid-1980s she worked with other women artists to promote gender and racial equality in the fine arts,” he said.
There are two large abstracts with bands of dripping monochromatic color, one all blue and one all red. The blue one has a few women’s faces collaged into it, one of which is almost totally hidden behind cut-out strips of paper.
Among a group of intaglio prints are a couple that remind me of Matisse’s large dance paintings and his paper cuts from the “Jazz” series. One of these with intertwined bodies being crushed by flat, multicolored coffee cups is particularly exciting.
Ragan’s work is inventive, thoughtful and skillfully executed. We have only this weekend to see her exhibition before it closes. There will be a closing reception Friday, Sept. 17, from 5 to 7 p.m.

[Kittredge Gallery,  A Life in Art: Betty Sapp Ragan Retrospective, through Sept. 19, Monday-Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday noon to 5 p.m., 1500 N. Warner St., Tacoma, 253.879.3701]

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