140 Ruth C. Koelewyn

Born Newberry, South Carolina, 1983. BFA, Syracuse University; MFA, Cranbrook Academy of Art / Lives in Detroit, Michigan

The observation that an artist’s surroundings influences their work finds new relevance in the delicate geometries, intricate textures, and subtle color variations of Ruth Koelewyn’s restrained abstractions. A key reference for Koelewyn is the sky as it appears framed by architecture. This has given rise to the striking cyan blue monochromes of her ongoing Skyshapes series (2014-present), and the conceptually related Blue Triangles (2014-2015), Blue Crowns (2017), and Can Serrat Skyshapes (2019).

Made after she moved to Detroit in 2015, Blue Triangles showcases the view through an historic window in Koelewyn’s apartment in Scranton, PA. Exhibited as a single stack or dispersed on a wall, Blue Triangles consists of 444 drawings, executed with a highly precise Rapidograph ink pen on semi-transparent sheets of Mylar polyester film. A double-hung frame, a sill, a top sash, a head and side jam interlock into a single flat plane, with outdoor siding and a triangular piece of cyan sky collaged onto it. Each new architectural sketch presents a free-hand variation of the same scene, drawn from memory.

As color and sight necessarily operate conjointly, so do bodily position and viewing angle. Taken together, they define a situation that binds the experience of the artist with that of the viewer in intuitive, empathetic ways. “Looking at the sky gives you a place in life. It voids you,” the artist observes. While we cannot see, feel, or think what the artist saw, felt, or thought, art that advocates a rupture of utility routines can endorse a deeper participation in everyday life, even if momentarily.

In Koelewyn’s work, two-and three-dimensional shapes are in a constant state of turning onto and into each other. Her 2017 Blue Crown series comprises works made of acrylic cyan ink on 300lb watercolor paper as well as thin, metallic, powder-coated sculptures. The title is a metaphor for how the sky “sits” like a crown on top of the Detroit skyline when seen from her 6th-floor apartment in the Lafayette Towers. Turning toward reliefs, in the spray-painted, washed, and shaved acrylic Can Serrat Skyshapes (2019) solid flatness gives way to scaly, textured surfaces inspired by the landscape of Spain.

Trained in the 3D media of metalsmithing and jewelry, Koelewyn’s approach to artmaking is centered in a sustained emphasis on surface, texture, and technique as key measures of a work’s effectiveness. In untitled (yellow) (2011), Koelewyn set herself the simple task of exhausting an entire box of twelve yellow pencils as she laboriously colored two rectangular, 11-foot-long sheets of architectural trace paper over a period of two months. After finishing, she ran a shoe brush over the bright yellow surface to create a creased texture. In allusion to her conceptual premise, broken pencils are displayed side by side with the fragile sheets during the exhibition. Additionally, the sticky double-sided tape used to adhere the work to the wall tears the paper upon deinstallation, leaving marks that unite production and display, creation and destruction into a simultaneity of procedural marks.

A familiarity with handling paper, acquired in her father’s extensive basement printshop, surfaces again in Folded Drawings(2015). Here, simple gestures of folding and wrapping solid sheets of colored paper, sometimes tied with strings or tape, lead to sculptural bundles with mysterious contents. Gestures of Holding(2015) mimics the customary behavior of professionals in the jewelry business who carry precious diamonds in paper wrappers inserted into shirt and pants pockets. In the work, scrap gold is melted down, rolled into paper-thin sheets, then tucked in to hold a precious, invisible nautilus shell.

Overall, Koelewyn’s work unites the literal and metaphorical meaning of the verb “to grasp” as holding and beholding. Her philosophically-inclined practice depicts human experience as a fluid state with marked thresholds of the visible and invisible, the tangible and the intangible, the seen and the held in a constant state of folding into each other.

Nadja Rottner, May 2020