When I visited Ralph Pugay’s studio last month, I was immediately drawn to a small painting of a partially dressed man in a desert at night. He is sitting on the ground near the top of the picture, casually reclining under the light of the moon. Three figures -presumably in graves- are buried deep beneath him, exposed by a cutaway composition that lets us peer into the earth. In a surreal twist, each figure has a phone held up to the side of his or her face, so that even in this nocturnal and underground setting they are all dramatically lit with a familiar glow. The image, at once funny and somber, suggested to me the near universal need to feel connected to a world beyond our own. But rather than being blandly ironic, it speaks to a very real desire to maintain an open line of communication with people even after they are gone. The half-dressed man and his buried companions all have their phones pressed up to their ears, but it’s still difficult to tell if anyone is actually trying to talk. They are all, at the very least, listening.
Below are some photos, questions, and answers from a recent visit to Pugay's studio in NE Portland. You can see more of his work at Upfor Gallery and http://www.ralphpugay.com/.
The artist in his studio.
Semi-Finalist: Let's go back to the beginning- how did you get started as an artist?
Raph Pugay: I dabbled in photography in high school but never really took it that seriously since my teachers would always tell me that my pictures weren’t that good. I moved to Portland State to pursue an architecture degree. That plan fell through after a week of moving to the city and after a week-long snow-storm derailed my course schedule which was already off-track to begin with since I began school in the middle of the academic year. I decided to change all of my classes and committed to dabbling in different courses for a bit. Took a drawing class and fell in-love with it, so I just decided that I would commit to art as a major.
"I like having a number of projects laying around..."
S-F: Can you talk a little bit about your creative process?
RP: I am not much of a planner when it comes to my paintings. I wish I was. With being a full-time professor, it would help me optimize my time better. I like having a number of projects laying around to work on so that I have some options in terms of finding what I can accomplish. If I can keep the momentum of being excited about working on something, then that is usually conducive to being excited about other potential projects. Working small-scale leaves the opportunity for feelings of excitement to keep going through the duration of realizing work. If I get bored with accomplishing something half-way through, I leave them behind in the meantime until I can imagine them having other possibilities. I have worked on project-based works that do not allow for that kind of liberating schedule, though. It is nice to have both going. Inspiration comes from listening, reading, writing, talking, and experiencing. I was working exclusively with acrylic for awhile but I have grown to love and play with other materials as well.
"I think humor is really good in drawing people in in an unguarded way..."
(acrylic and paint pen on paper)
S-F: You have a way of making absurd, comical, dream worlds that somehow illustrate elements of the human condition and our near universal concerns as a species- what’s up with that?
RP: I think humor is really good at drawing people in in an unguarded way and I like the idea that a still image amidst all of these technological advances can still disarm people. I think that is really useful especially at a time when people are always distracted. The paintings can sometimes be about having a place to put all my anxieties and fear about the world; but they can also be about being brave and finding moments of beauty in murkiness. I like that my work kind of starts out foundationally from a place of feeling how topsy-turvy the world is, but I like that making something like paintings from it can ground you into feeling like you can still make something that is real, that is born out of a real feeling, despite how momentary feelings can be.
Works in progress.
RP (continued): Humor is really good in helping us acknowledge how fragile our rules and guidelines for living are. Sometimes these guidelines provide us with a narrow viewpoint which can crystallize in our psyches and our bodies in a way that can make people rigid, angry, and ugly. I like the idea that humor is a good way to shake all of that off. The painting process in its duration actually is a really good way to determine how funny something is. If you’re painting something for a really long time and you are still interested in it by the time it’s done, then you probably have something that is really good.
Ink on paper
S-F: Your drawings take on a life of their own that is quite different from the finished paintings. How do you see them fitting in to your overall body of work?
RP: They’re studies that have a life of their own. They come from the same place-- but processed through a different kind of durational experience.
A corner of the studio.
S-F: I know that you have a diverse range of projects that you’ve worked on, from botanical installations to animated gifs. Are you currently working on any projects outside of your paintings and drawings? If so, what are they and when can we expect to see them?
RP: I will be doing a show in the Philippines and I’ve always wanted to do a project there. I have some ideas of what I would like to do as an excuse to visit more but you never really can determine if it is potent until you’re at that place. So suffice it to say, I am excited to go.
The artist and a model.
S-F: You recently did a mural for Facebook. How was the experience of scaling up your work?
RP: I really liked it. It took awhile to figure out how to make it work, but I really loved the large scale and makes me want to do more projects like that.
S-F: You have so many great art books in your studio and a deep appreciation of art history. Who have you been looking at lately (living or dead) and are they having a visible impact on your work?
RP: I am geeking out on some Horace Pippin right now. I love how muted his palette is and some of the narratives have a whimsical yet quiet quality about them.
Works on paper. Maybe done, maybe not.
Works in progress; acrylic on canvas.
S-F: What’s next for you?
RP: I have a couple of group shows in Oregon and a group show in New York and in the Philippines which are all happening this earlier part of the year. I am currently in the process of signing up for a summer residency to work with a master printer too which I am pretty excited about.
Below: More Pugay
In the studio.
Works in progress; acrylic on canvas.
Drawings, drawings, drawings.
Acrylic on canvas.