As she furthers her inspirations from Pop Art, Boo Ritson’s painted people examine the cultural stereotypes of the collective imagination, and effortlessly fuse sculpture and painting into a completely new form.
Exploring the confusion between artificiality and reality, stereotype and individualism, sculpture and portraiture, Boo Ritson’s work straddles mediums and represents a unique attitude to the artistic subject. Ritson’s method is both literal and figurative. She paints people using mostly friends and close acquaintances to style them into the popular figures that haunt our childhood memories and TV screens. She preserves these icons beneath a thick lacquer of paint, and simplistic blocks of bold glossy colour.
With a history of both solo and group exhibitions in London, New York, Santa Monica, Cardiff and Stockholm, Ritson’s idiosyncratic transformations of the real into the artificial have grown in reputation over the last few years, a fact cemented by her latest solo display, The Hobo and Friends, showing at Adler in Frankfurt, Germany. The works available in the collection include: The Synchronised Swimmer, The Singer, The Bellhop and of course, The Hobo, and they all embrace the concept of Americana and kitsch cultural preconceptions.
Focusing on the stereotypes that have pervaded collective consciousness through cultural imperialism, most of Surrey-born Ritson’s inspirations stem from “the exported Americana of literature and films. I love the places they portray and the stories that they tell, from the sunlit sets of Hollywood to the lit-by-neon bars, and the accents that run through it all.” She acknowledges that homegrown ideas have not proved to be so forthcoming: “I haven’t yet found a way to look at English stereotypes that is full of enough of the same kind of colour.” Colour holds an intrinsic importance in the sculpture itself. Ritson is naturally drawn to decades whose fashions have embraced the use of block colours that can easily facilitate broad stereotypes, and a 1950s and 1980s mood encompasses the clothing of her creations. Rather than an aesthetic preference, Ritson is keen to make the contexts of her subjects clear: “I like the way that visual styles from the past are fixed and recognisable, so it is a conscious decision at times to be accurate to whichever time a stereotype is most identified with.”
While taking significant inspiration from Pop Art, Ritson’s practice also draws parallels with artists such as Richard Phillips and the early works of Cindy Sherman. Without the overt eroticism and sexuality, however, Ritson extends the repertoire beyond exclusively female stereotypes. Symptomatically, cowboys are a particular subject of Ritson’s fascination and, where many artists informed by Pop Art have concentrated on the female construction, and an air of vulnerability, Ritson avoids this cliché. Even Hooker, one of the artist’s earlier pieces from 2007, conforms to a one-dimensional, tawdry imagery, far-flung from any real sexuality. It is in presenting these stereotypes in such an oblique way that Ritson encourages us to metaphorically look beneath the physically impenetrable layers of her impasto-covered subjects.
Having a cross-genre academic grounding (Ritson studied English Literature and History before returning to university in her late twenties for a Fine Art degree, and ultimately a Sculpture MA) has created a keen awareness of today’s overlaps in artistic processes. “I need the form that a three-dimensional structure offers in order to paint, and it seems to me that the person I use as a sitter, or the donut that is held in a hand, is indivisible from the image that I paint on top of them.” Furthermore, for many of the pieces, Ritson’s creativity began on the page with jottings and musings on the cultural stereotypes that she chose to embrace at any one particular time. “I find it good shorthand for all the images that I want to explore, because it is the quickest way to get them all to interact.” Unlike many visual artists, Ritson finds the progression and movement between verbal narrative to visual narrative is a normal consequence of her imagination — “words are a bit like sculptures, you can deploy them at different speeds and weights and they ultimately have a life of their own and surprise you. They live on the page on my desktop like the work does in the studio, and I move them around frequently until they find the right place.” Despite her background in literature, Ritson has no plans to publish her initial musings: “The words don’t replace the work, they just run alongside it, but I don’t feel that publishing them would add anything.”
This facile transgression from one medium to another, all containing the original imaginative message, is furthered in the next stage of practice, the photography. The fact that the photograph is the ultimate work of art, and the ultimate commodity for Ritson and her gallerists, is important because it belies the interdisciplinary emphasis of the exhibition. The artist’s formal training as a sculptor, and the accompanying images to this piece, could draw a sculptural categorisation; but when practicalities are considered, that Ritson’s sculptures are indeed real people, we see that perhaps the artist is really a painter. Then again, in a double bluff, once Ritson’s accommodating acquaintances have washed off their gooey veneer, the focus must come to lie on a photographic interpretation. At this point, Ritson must focus exclusively on the finalised image, and adjust her earlier work and story-telling accordingly: “My final set of decisions occur when I stop looking at the painting in front of me and refer only to the on-screen shot of it — this leads me to alter the painting to take account of how it looks in the image. It is really important to let go of some pre-held ideas at this point, because the document is all that remains of the painting — inevitably some adjustments are needed to help the transition from what I see in the flesh to the print that it becomes.”
Many of Ritson’s sitters are close friends, “mainly because they’re incredibly tolerant and let me do my worst without complaining,” but this adds a dimension of intrigue to the works for the viewer. By projecting her pre-conceived imagery onto a friend has Ritson already associated them with that particular character in her head? Or has she sought to obliterate personal ties and continue from a blank canvas? “Sometimes they have already seemed like a particular character to me, but a couple of them have the ability to look completely different each time I’ve painted them.” Using a familiar face has also enhanced her study of the human form, “it has added to my understanding of how the faces and images sit together.”
It is a commonly held cliché that the eyes are the window to the soul, and the recurrence of dark glasses and goggles in the exhibition hints at the distance, and generality, which the figures maintain. The result is to make “the character more of a statue and therefore more remote.” Here Ritson admits to inverting the common practice of most art, of tampering with the real to make it seem artificial. “I want to see how the paint sits and collects in the contours of one face and costume versus another — how the identity of the face beneath is always apparent in the image on top, and how they both alter each other.”
In addressing the one-dimensional, predictable figures of American popular culture, Riston has provided an exhibition, which is at times superficially beautiful in its simplicity and colour, and at times almost grotesque in masquerading the self-imposed barriers of reverting to type. Ritson explores the possibility of her subjects hiding, not only behind dark glasses, but also behind society’s notions of how they should look. She invites the viewer to question the boundaries of making such assumptions of a character based on cultural pre-conceptions. “Many of the characters I’ve used are recognisably cultural stereotypes — they have a language of colour and narrative that has built up over time and it communicates very clearly from the beginning.” In utilising a palette of block, bright, glossy colour, Ritson has paradoxically invited us to explore the grey area of life, that moment when the real and the art intersect and mingle into one. “I’m interested in the point at which the face of the sitter merges with the face of the character, where the metamorphosis of the two can’t progress any further and the real and the artificial are the same thing.”