Pittsburgh artist Rouphail brings new display to Lawrenceville gallery
What awaits us on a map of a city grid? Does a building tell the story of lives it hosts, or perhaps the history of the space it occupies? A building, too, can be described by its active participants; advertisements, signs, street life (or lack thereof), and the natural and artificial elements that neighbor it.
In Paul Rouphail's recent work, on display in “Where I Live,” he attempts to deconstruct a sense of tangible place to expose its bare characteristics — the repetition of windows and walls, the architectural detailing, the reflection of light — thereby reducing a place to its formal essence.
The nearly two dozen paintings and prints on display at Borelli-Edwards Galleries in Lawrenceville are accompanied by poems by Rouphail's mother, Maria Rouphail.
“It seemed natural to collaborate with my mother for this show as we share a similar visual rhetoric,” says Rouphail, adding that the show title is from her piece, “Where I Live.”
In a way, the poems act as a narrative thread that link all the images together. The poems and paintings were completed separately throughout the past year or so, but they nevertheless seem to illuminate or activate some undercurrent in the other's work. “We bend towards something, We don't know why,” as Maria Rouphail so aptly puts it in her piece “Showings.”
In this way, the poems act as an invitation to the viewer to step into the images. They also help introduce the figure into the landscape, which, in most cases, are void of people altogether.
For Paul Rouphail, it was important that the show take additional dimensions, besides the gallery setting. “On the gallery walls, the poems support the images, but I also created a show chapbook where the poems are assisted by the paintings,” he says.
Visitors to the gallery will no doubt notice that several of the paintings are of Pittsburgh landscapes and buildings in particular, such as “Dusk in Appalachia,” “Flight Over a Small City” and “A Tall Building in an American City,” which depicts the U.S. Steel Tower.
“A desire to seek out contemplative and complex urban space is what excites me in making images of Pittsburgh's dense architectural landscape,” Rouphail says.
Rouphail's most recent paintings explore Pittsburgh as an ecology of urban monoliths. The historiography of each throughway and neighborhood shimmers and hums with each facade, whether it is the U.S. Steel Tower's westward face on a late summer evening, or the hulking presence of the retrofitted pre-war building at Penn and Main streets as it presides over the Lawrenceville flats and Appalachian hills below it.
Much like George Bellows' turn-of-the-century Manhattan, Rackstraw Downes' contemporary Brooklyn, and Antonio Lopez Garcia's latter-century Madrid, Rouphail's intention with this body of work is to take an active role as the “painter as biographer.” That is, by cataloguing contemporary urban Pittsburgh as a complex ecology of urban architectural history.
These paintings attempt to contextualize regionalism within the larger framework of American realism and the landscape tradition.
“It is my intent to display Western Pennsylvania as scenically unique, yet analogous to the larger American pictorial tableau,” Rouphail writes in his statement. “Topographically, Pittsburgh carries little of the visual familiarity one would associate with the East Coast vernacular or of the distinct panoramas of the American West. Pittsburgh fits outside of the two, where associations made by a broader audience about the scenic qualities of the city allude not merely to a region but to the American landscape experience as a whole.
“The city's rolling hills and expansive vistas allow for light to pierce the architectural fabric in such a way that the city, as a landscape, is in a constant state of flux; light is always shifting, and the possibilities for discovery are ever more present.”
Earlier works, such as “Evening in Miraflores” and “Neighborhood By the Ocean” were painted during time spent in Lima, Peru, in 2011, when Rouphail was living and working there with his girlfriend and fellow Pittsburgh painter Lindsay Merrill (The pair will be having a show together in May titled “Talus” at 707 Gallery).
Hung next to each other, these two paintings work almost as a panorama of the view from the apartment they shared.
“Walking around Lima, one can feel that he or she is experiencing a sort of cultural collision or synthesis,” Rouphail says. “I'm still trying to find a poignant way to talk about my experience there and the subsequent paintings that I have produced after the fact.”
Finally, several of Rouphail's “Constellation Paintings” complete the exhibit, such as “Sacred Ground” in which Rouphail has “connected the dots” of a constellation in the sky above a billboard containing a Coca-Cola logo.
“The western landscape and constellation paintings come from my time living out in California,” Rouphail says.
With the works in this series, there is a sense of expansive space, physical and temporal. “The inclusion of these constellations among commercial structures and natural terrain is an attempt to consolidate all of these disparate ideas of the American landscape,” Rouphail says.
Rouphail underscores the tradition of landscape painting, both natural and urban, with a sense of anxiety — the presence of familiar commercial advertisements, or artificial structures beaconing over the ambiguous terrain that expand beyond them.
“I want to imbue the landscape with a palpable tension,” he says, “an allusion to a complex past and an unexpected future. These two opposing forces work as a calamity of the serene and the sublime.”
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com.