A respected abstract painter and teacher at the Oregon College of Art and Craft, Michelle Ross is a 2012 winner of the coveted Hallie Ford Fellowship in the Visual Arts. In this exhibition of four works (all 2012), she fulfilled what she began gingerly to essay at the Portland Art Museum’s 2011 biennial of Northwest art—where one of her untitled panels unexpectedly trailed a length of pale blue tulle. Fabric now rules Ross’s practice, with Redress, for example, repeating the conjunction of painted panel and translucent veil. Neatly wrapped in an irregular swatch of white and pale-mustard chiffon, the punningly titled 10-by-13-inch painting with collage appeared mysterious and reticent, as if painting had reconsidered its obligation to be looked at, and donned a head scarf.
At stake here is the nature of painting itself, for fabric is of course typically the medium’s literal support; in these works, Ross conflates painting with clothing, drapery and upholstery. Silencer 2 presents a riot of fabrics standing in as painting and spilling onto the floor. Large sheets of vinyl, linen and faux leather, sewn together and pinned to the wall, supplant solid painted planes; creases and seams resemble drawn lines. Organdy and organza provide see-through layers, like thin glazes, while shadows among the sensuous folds are cast rather than rendered. Seduced by colors, textures and sheen, viewers might easily overlook the work’s gessoed panel at bottom left. Leaning against the wall, mostly hidden behind a velvet black swatch, the diminutive painting suggests the return of the repressed. In Blind, the proportion of painted panel to textile is reversed, with a thin strip of ragged cocoa-brown polyester tacked along the right edge of a 5-by-4-foot expanse of beige paint, enlivened with patches of white and blue and a single, vertical graphite line. Listing interior latex and plaster among her mixed mediums in this work, the artist relates painting to home improvement, just as her ambiguous title invokes blocked vision and/or a particular kind of window treatment.
In hanging Blind low on the wall, Ross aligned it not with the viewer’s eye level but with the body, that crucial element absent but always implied in her abstract compositions. “These are the costumes I never made for the children I never had,” she writes in a poignant gallery statement, “the winding sheets I would make if I had to.” Indeed a figural presence seems to haunt Cura, a “painting” without paint that traversed one wall and continued onto another, a giant cloth collage in black, brown and blue. Interrupting this horizontal progression of blackout drapery and weed barrier around the corner, a tall vertical passage of elegant white-and-ivory silk and linen read to me like a stately bride, the train of her dress flowing onto the floor. For this occasion, humbler stuffs shed their workaday roles, as fabric—in all its quotidian utility, variety and sometimes beauty—is subsumed in Ross’s material wedding of art and life.
Photo: Michelle Ross: Silencer 2, 2012, mixed mediums, 77 by 92 by 28 inches; at Nine.