Ralph Pugay, Night-Tide Daytripping
by Daniel J Glendening
I grew up without a microwave, and in my early teenage years I spent a lot of afternoons at my friend David’s house. His family had a microwave (along with all those other advances of modern living: cable television, the internet) and we’d employ it in making after-school snacks, primarily for it’s unsurpassed ability to melt cheese. More than once I stood in front of the machine as it hummed, staring through the glass as the food spun around and around on the rotating platter. “Don’t stand in front of it! You’ll get cancer!”
I don’t know if it’s true that standing in front of the microwave will give you cancer, but all that matters is the threat, the potential. In our search for convenience we’ve harnessed the unseen forces of nature to heat our food, and to lay waste to urban centers. To stare into the microwave is maybe akin to staring into the sun, to look for the divine amidst unknown power, to court blindness, or death, for a glimpse at something wondrous.
In Night-Tide Daytripping, at Rocksbox Contemporary Fine Art, Ralph Pugay presents a body of work consisting of painting, sculpture and performance. Much of the work utilizes a subtle dark humor and absurdity to tiptoe through a conversation that hovers over trauma and a fear of modernity, blending suburban anxiety with science fiction and The Far Side. The work is somehow crude in its craft and highly refined, attentive and considerate of detail. Pugay’s paintings are flat images, the acrylic color applied in a smooth even surface largely absent brushstroke and scumble marks, except where used to illustrate a gust of wind, or the reflection of light on a car window. Figures and objects are cartoonish, lacking sharp edges and with bulbous white eyes, and they move through environments composed of a tilted, flattened, depthless space.
The first work in the exhibition is A Sign of the Times, a 16”x20” acrylic on canvas painting. Here, Pugay depicts a band of escaped convicts, still in prison-orange jumpsuits, leg-irons and handcuffs, arriving on a bluff overlooking the Great Salt Lake and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. The ringleader of this escape attempt points enthusiastically down at the historic earthwork, his wide Wallace-and-Gromit grin beaming through his thick, matted beard. His fellow prisoners appear mostly puzzled, unmoved, and bewildered by the destination of this ankle-bound pilgrimage. They, somehow, don’t see what their comrade sees.
Moving through the exhibition, some themes spiral outward from A Sign of the Times. There is a sense of alienation, of anxiety, of people amidst their world; a feeling that we’re looking for meaning in all the wrong places. Daddy’s Changing depicts a white middle class family in a suburban home, pausing in their game of Jenga to enthusiastically welcome Daddy home as he sweeps into the living room while undergoing a rapid evolution from ape to suit-and-tie-wearing man. In Presidential Panic Attack the leader of the free world (a grey-haired white man) cowers against the wall of the Oval Office as frantic aids try to sooth him. The Blind Man Reading Atlas Shrugged sobs uncontrollably in the public library. Chicken Pox Orgyfinds the suburban living room transformed into a scene of anguished sexuality, red-spotted participants writhing on the floor amidst bottles of calamine lotion and rolls of toilet paper while a small spotted dog frantically barks at the mayhem. It’s as if everyone knows that the tower is about to collapse, and they’re going to make damn sure they get the most out of life before it does.
At the rear of the Rocksbox’s small warren of rooms is Identity Crisis. It’s an approximately life-size paper mache sculpture of a blonde white guy, seated on the floor, with a downcast gaze. He is dressed in a representation of buckskin pants, with a leather vest and moccasins adorned with Native American style patterning. In his right hand the figure holds a black braided wig with a feather tucked into a headband. The sculpture is a fitting conclusion to the body of work presented in Night-Tide Daytripping — a humorous jab at the fashionable appropriation of indigenous spiritual symbolism, to be sure, but also tinged with melancholy, as if to say that this world is moving too fast for any of us to keep up, and none of us really know who we are anymore.
Pugay depicts, in his work, a world at odds with itself, caught between progress and complacency. Our modern homes shelter us from the world, allow us to fool ourselves into behaving with civility, but once we go outside into the night we’re just apes with sticks. Like the pajama-clad figure standing before the machine in Spiritual Microwave, we’re all staring into the bright light. We’re looking for meaning or purpose in physics, in the bending of atoms and the elusive Higgs boson. We each carry a small pocket-sized computer with us everywhere we go as if it were some sort of magical talisman, always ready to carry out our command, or comfort us in our loneliness. We don’t really understand the world that we live in, but most of the time we accept it without question, or hesitation.
We’re not sure who we are anymore, we only know we want something wonderful.