Cover Story: Hot Issue: Ruthe Pearlman's Extraordinary Vision

Art Beyond Boundaries presents a retrospective exhibition

May 30, 2007 at 2:06 pm

From what I gather, Ruthe Pearlman was one spunky dame. I never knew her myself, yet in speaking with her friends and colleagues, it's immediately apparent that Pearlman was a firecracker of a woman, unique and cherished by many.

I keep hearing many of the same descriptions over and over again: She was intelligent, witty, passionate, brazen and cultured, with an unrivaled zest and vigor for life. She lived to be 93, was intimately involved with the Art Academy of Cincinnati for nearly 80 years, was a teacher and mentor to countless pupils and was a practicing artist literally until the day she died, Jan. 31.

What makes Pearlman's life, art and achievements all the more extraordinary is the fact that she battled macular degeneration — a disease that left her legally blind — for the final 20 years of her life.

To honor Pearlman and her multi-decade oeuvre, Art Beyond Boundaries (ABB) gallery is hosting Limitless Vision: An Exhibit of Work by the Late Ruthe Pearlman, starting June 1. It will feature pieces donated by her son that date from the 1950s to the her final days.

Although there are works of various type and medium, the highlight of Limitless Vision is Pearlman's figure drawings. In a word, they're stunning.

One doesn't need to compare this genre to others to see that the artist was most at home with the human figure.

Strolling past drawing after drawing, it would be difficult not to intuit that Pearlman was a master of minimalism. Not minimalism in the Richard Serra or Donald Judd sense, but in the nature of her technique.

Take, for example, one of my favorite pieces, which portrays a seated man with head tilted upwards, hands resting in his lap. At the level of minute dissection, the squiggly, undulating lines seem haphazard and jumbled. When considering the big picture, however, one can't help but be dazzled by the seemingly effortless manner in which they cohere to reveal form and even emotion.

This ability to convey the essence of form and structure with the fewest strokes possible is what Jymi Bolden, ABB Gallery director, calls her "astounding marksmanship."

As I perused the works to be included in the show on a recent visit to the gallery, I casually inquired as to whether Pearlman was really as sassy as I hear.

"Sassy?" Bolden replied, laughing. "Take a look at this."

He pointed me toward a drawing that initially seems blatantly pornographic, or at the very least provocative. A man is seated in a chair looking down at the woman sitting in front of him — both nude, her head facing his lap. You can speculate how such positioning can be interpreted upon a hasty first glance.

Once you realize what's not going on, however, you see that this is actually a tender, loving scene between man and woman. The man's gaze and affectionate expression and the careful way they touch reveal intimacy and quiet romance endowed with genuine adoration.

The sketch-like, scrawling lines likewise convey a certain innocence or naiveté that adds to the sense of intimacy. In Bolden's opinion, the bold confidence and exploratory nature Pearlman displays in pieces such as this made her a true innovator for her time.

Besides such compelling drawings, there are also a number of oil paintings and watercolors featured in Limitless Vision. My favorite is a watercolor seascape, executed in muted black, white and grays. The monochromatic palette and the manner in which form is subtly suggested in as few strokes as possible recall the minimalist charm of Japanese ink painting. It reinforces Pearlman's mastery in capturing the bare essence of her subjects.

Art was clearly a central facet in her life. As friend and Art Academy President Greg Smith says, Pearlman used art not only as a means of expression but also of personal connection. She was a social, gregarious artist who cultivated a family that extended beyond genetics to include fellow artists, students, colleagues and many more.

She began teaching at the Art Academy in 1929, and throughout the years she likewise taught at the Cincinnati Art Museum and at her Mount Adams studio. Besides teaching, however, Pearlman never ceased to create art.

When she was diagnosed with macular degeneration in 1988, she turned to art to help her cope. Several works from the Ocular Series, which she created as a response to her diagnosis, are included in Limitless Vision.

The series is notable for its abrupt divergence from her figural works and landscapes. Here the artist uses abstraction and bright yet bleeding color as a means of expression. In the works I saw, the series' unifying chord is, not surprisingly, the pervasive, sometimes muted presence of the eye. As Pearlman stated in a 1999 interview, "Thank goodness I had my art to help me deal with this!"

When the Center for Independent Living Options opened the ABB Gallery in 2005, dedicated to professionally showcasing the works of local individuals with disabilities, Pearlman immediately jumped on board. Bolden, who'd known Pearlman from his days as an Art Academy student, says she was passionate about ABB's mission and served as a mentor and example to other artists with disabilities.

Pearlman continues to aid and inspire artistic growth even after her death, as all proceeds from the exhibit will go into the Ruthe Pearlman Fund, which provides grants to artists with disabilities.

LIMITLESS VISION will be on display at Art Beyond Boundaries Gallery, 1410 Main St., Over-the-Rhine. The opening reception is 5:30 p.m. June 1.