may/June 2005

more feature articles:

Julie Kahn: The Impresario
by Joel Weinstein

Tresses and Wonder: Ruby Osorio‚s Girl Stories

By Jeffrey Hughes

Los Angeles-based artist Ruby Osorio has been navigating the art world in unusual ways. Caught in a tight place between outsider and rising star, this emerging artist has sidestepped the more typical path (from BFA to a well-known MFA program to first gallery experiences, and so on) to enjoy the early recognition of a solo museum exhibition. If other, familiar examples of the successful faux-outsider do exist, it is the dizzying rapidity of Osorio‚s ascent that sets her apart.

Ruby Osorio, Where Mushrooms Bloom, 2004, gouache, ink and thread on paper, triptych: 23 x 91 inches (courtesy of the artist and cherrydelosreyes, Los Angeles)

Osorio‚s art career follows on the trail of a sociology degree from UCLA, brief studies of Pre-Columbian art at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in Mexico City, and substitute teaching in Los Angeles public schools. This far-ranging experience and the openness that it reflects are clearly manifest in the artist‚s joyful and unaffected personality, and her straightforward decorative almost girly art, well, perhaps grrrly art.

In Osorio‚s small gouache and ink drawings, embroidery and the cutting and manipulation of the paper itself are significant linear elements. Nubile girls exploring a range of sexually-charged demeanor constitute her primary subjects. If the investigation of identity is ubiquitous in contemporary art, Osorio turns her attention to a particular threshold: the passage into womanhood. While these young females don‚t seem particularly sure of their place, they are nonetheless rather pleased with it.

Osorio‚s figures often inhabit magical lands, replete with mushrooms or flowers. Are these diminutive anthropomorphic allegories or phantasmagoric female fairies? Of course, they aren‚t exactly Tinkerbell: many are nude, some wear bikinis, thongs, or even garter and stockings. They appear in provocative poses, gambol, caress, and occasionally masturbate. Vague, however, their sexuality transcends the codes. If her works are in no manner a small-scale examination of the pro-V-chip, anti-pornographic feminist discourse, neither are Osorio‚s bad girls of the Cecily Brown, Lisa Yuskavage, Sue Williams or Ghada Amer ilk.

While stitchery seems an obvious link to Amer‚s works, Osorio remains far from her direct appropriation of soft-core imagery. Girls preen, lounge and frolic in the diptych Flow and Flux, 2005. Their ease of being seems to suggest an understanding of female identity that does not require a foundational opposition, no masculine/neutral/feminine. Instead, they seem to present femininity as a realm of sheer pleasure, invoking Luce Irigaray‚s notion of female pleasure as auto-erotic, and as an embrace of pleasure for its own sake. Osorio‚s works can thus be seen to contribute and expand a discourse loosely described as post-1990s feminism, where both female beauty and sexuality are celebrated.

Ruby Osorio, Fish out of Water, 2001-04, gouache, ink and thread on paper, 7.75 x 11.25 inches (collection of Charlotte and Bill Ford, New York)

After graduating from UCLA, Osorio taught high school and began taking evening drawing classes. She became interested in making copies of old master drawings, stating that she was intrigued by a „certain sensuality of the figure, and the studies on paper.š  This period of study led to a continuing interest in the works of Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt. In both Viennese artists, Osorio has found antecedents for the exploration of implicit sexuality and the decorative.

After these initial studies, Osorio began her independent exploration of printmaking. It was at this point that she first became aware of the works of Cindy Sherman, the artist whom she credits for creating works in which she found a real resonance with her interests and personal concerns.

Osorio independently began making spontaneous drawings, at the same time as she was increasingly finding fleeting escape in the fantasy world of fashion magazines. Referencing the poses of high-fashion models, a series of drawings showed young women with truncated body parts. Martha Stewart, pre-prison I suppose, and the myth of „domestic queenš constitute another source for her work.

Having grown up with parents who maintained strong connections to their Mexican heritage, Osorio was struck by their experience of gendered expectation. Her mother was raised in a convent in Mexico City where embroidery was a required class, even into the late 1960s. As a child, Osorio herself was sent to Mexico City every summer where her aunts taught her the traditional craft of embroidery. If these lessons were received with something less than engaged interest, they nonetheless may have prepared her for the current re-confinement of women to the sphere of domesticity so perfectly spearheaded by Martha Stewart‚s message.

Osorio continues to use poses found in fashion magazines. She now also employs images from Playboy in an attempt to simply find the most interesting or even, as she puts it with absolutely no disingenuousness, „the most attractive pose.š

Often compared to Marcel Dzama, Osorio‚s works are, perhaps, more closely related to the sexualized girls that appear in anime as the dyadic femme fragile/femme fatale. Osorio‚s femmes find a telling parallel in Chiho Aoshima‚s wide-eyed nymphs that, in line with Murakami‚s superflat theory, combine residual elements of Edo period painting with an in-depth knowledge of Western art and culture to represent a true hybrid of traditional and contemporary Western dominated cultures. Likewise, Osorio‚s work weds a Mexican tradition of female activity to the broader and much starker realities of contemporary cultural hybridity.

What is the balance of autobiography and fantasy in these works? It is impossible to assess. Osorio notes something of this duality herself. If she recognizes „this girl aspect of myself,š she also wants „to escape and experience the pleasurable lifeš of her characters. The works thus allow her to investigate alternate roles, to test positions and question the future, to workshop an evolving self. These concerns are also manifest in recent works that suggest very real fears. Among various uncertainties, Osorio states that she feels like an outsider, that there is „always a sense of where I started, outside the traditional art career path.š

Ruby Osorio, Threshold, 2005, gouache, ink and thread on paper, 78.5 x 38 inches (courtesy of the artist and cherrydelosreyes, Los Angeles)

Two opposing forces are becoming increasingly manifest in Osorio‚s works. In drawings like Easy Getaway, 2004, a cherubic little figure climbs a ladder to infinity. Though reminiscent of the sweetness of What a Girl Wants, a 2003 Warner Brothers release where Prince Charming is a non-sexualized composite of daddy and boyfriend, the saccharine-coated desire in Osorio‚s drawings is never obviously directed toward a male, or even a female for that matter. No lesbian or straight suitors are necessary. The raw and nearly pubescent longing for a happy ending suffices.

Not all of Osorio‚s works are nearly so tidily pleasant. A second, somewhat opposite impulse injects a darker, more worldly if not world-worn vision of femininity. Like Poussin‚s canonical allegory of death in Arcadia, Osorio‚s beautiful paradise is a mere facade.

Syndrome, 2004, depicts a lovely and curvaceous half-dressed roller-skater displaying her enormous mane of hair. Her expansive dark tresses are breaking from their own weight at the ends. All the while the figure stands on a pedestal inscribed with the words „perfect girlš. In related works, both title and image coalesce to suggest that even in this fantasy place all of our dashed hopes, addictions and self-destructive behaviors are present.  

Jeffrey Hughes is Professor of Art History and Criticism at Webster University, St. Louis. He writes for several art publications and has frequently contributed reviews in ART PAPERS.

The exhibition Ruby Osorio: A Story of a Girl (Who Awakes Far, Far Away) is on view at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis until June 12, 2005.


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