Rothkos in Space and Paintings of Dumpsters: The Absurd Worlds of Ralph Pugay

Out-loud laughter is not usually something you hear at a paintings show, particularly one inside of a museum. However, this is the reaction I saw over and over again, as I stood among Portland artist Ralph Pugay’s (NAP #97, #115) paintings, at the Seattle Art Museum. Filling a small but highly trafficked gallery that was wedged between exhibits of glass and of traditional nineteenth and twentieth century American art, the artist’s small canvases excelled at catching people off guard. The flattened, cartoonish scenes captured the eyes of people en route to another space, who would wander towards them with looks of befuddlement. The point at which the artist’s frank titles, absurdities and language games began to sink in was the moment the laughter began.— Erin Langner, Seattle contributor

Ralph Pugay | Rothkos in Space, acrylic on canvas, 24"x24", 2013. Image courtesy of the artist.

Ralph Pugay | Gymnastics Bull Attack, acrylic on board, 18"x24", 2013. Image courtesy of the artist.

Rothkos in Space exists exactly as described: it shows a constellation of mini-paintings floating around a command center. The characters staring into the Rothko force field would not look out of place in Futurama or Space Ghost Coast to Coast; their pointing and pondering is almost torturous—if this were a real cartoon show, any art nerd would want to see it and to know what they are saying. But, looking at this piece inside of a museum, where an actual painting by Rothko often hangs in a nearby gallery, Pugay’s painting constellation starts to look more like real-life. Works of abstract expressionism have become such tried and true crowd pleasers that they are now strategies, status symbols and selfie backgrounds as much as they are paintings, hanging in a cultural intersection as strange as a Rothko in space.

Ralph Pugay | All the Poor All in the Same Place, acrylic on canvas, 18"x24", 2012. Image courtesy of the artist.

Ralph Pugay | Sad Shelf Items, acrylic on board, 14"x18", 2012. Image courtesy of the artist.

All the Poor in the Same Place more sharply addresses the art world’s absurdities, showing artists painting people eating tacos from a dumpster, from the other side of a fence. More than just another meditation on the questions famously raised by Susan Sontag, in Regarding the Pain of others, the specifics of Pugay’s scene make its commentary more immediate.  The back alley taco service bears striking resemblance to the taco trucks that recently underwent a social evolution, from low- end to high-end cuisine. Formerly known by their derogatory term, “roach coaches,” the food trucks once affiliated with blue collar workers and lower income urban neighborhoods have become beloved by a more elite, mainstream food scene; the roach coach has become aestheticized, not unlike the dumpster being turned into paintings in Pugay’s scene. The way we turn the relationships around us into works of art, and the way art changes our own relationships, can be both laughably absurd and utterly serious, just like the worlds Ralph Pugay creates.

Ralph Pugay | Lobster Parade, acrylic on canvas, 18"x24", 2013. Image courtesy of the artist.

Ralph Pugay | Too Early Too Soon, acrylic on canvas, 9"x12", 2012. Image courtesy of the artist.


Ralph Pugay lives and works in Portland, OR. His work is on view at the Seattle Art Museum through January 11, as the recipient of the 2014 Betty Bowen Award. He received his MFA and his BA from Portland State University. Pugay’s work has been shown at Upfor Gallery (Portland, OR), Virginia Commonwealth University, and the Rhode Island School of Design, among other locations. He is the recipient of the Oregon Arts Commission Individual Artist Fellowship (2014) and the Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters and Sculptors award (2012).

Erin Langner is an arts writer and a program associate at Seattle Arts & Lectures.