Rachel Ranta’s Pedestals is the first show in the revitalized and book-free Texas Gallery, and it’s good to see the best white cube in Houston fully functional once again. Ranta’s installation places a double row of gray, column-like paintings down the two long walls, highlighting the gallery’s restored symmetry. The long table down the center of the space gives the show a last-supper feel, pregnant with symbolism.
Decoding this suggested symbolism is the preferred mode of viewing for Ranta’s works. Unusually tall and thin, each canvas is like a window, revealing a narrow slice of tabletop, on which is centered an object. The objects are illustrations of invisible words from a kindergarten primer: rock, comb, soap, shoes, sunglasses, aspirins, acorn, microscope, binoculars, glass, silverware, bowl, rose, hammer, pencil, lightbulb, bread.
Tight, dry, and colorless, Ranta’s uneventful painting style forces attention onto the literal and symbolic meanings of the objects she depicts. It is difficult for a contemporary artist to use symbolism. In our diverse, literate culture, there’s no well-defined vocabulary of symbolic images to draw on, and making up one’s own symbolism is meaningless. Worse, decades of painting for painting’s sake have made us impatient with symbolism, allegory and similar literary devices in art; only the most obvious of symbols will be read at all. That Ranta’s paintings tiptoe between heavy-handed literalness and meaningless mystification is to have achieved much; I looked at Ranta’s paintings, thought about them, and got something. It’s about the best one can hope for these days.
Ranta’s work is about the futile search for the hidden significance in the commonplace. Among the lumpen clutter two objects stand out from the others: a microscope and binoculars. Each is more complex and mechanical than the rest, less commonplace, and too difficult to spell for a first grader. They also have a clear symbolic connection: they are the tools of the search. With them one looks at the soap, the acorn and the shoes seeking traces of meaning which remain obscure despite scrutiny from both far and near.
Looked at another way, the show is a calendar of loneliness, each painting a day: cold, gray, one following another in a row of sameness broken only by trivia. Today I hung the show, yesterday I drank some water, and the day before that I found an acorn. Each painting’s three horizontal bands form a landscape; faint streaking in each “‘sky” might be the dawn of another dull day.
All images are courtesy the artist and Texas Gallery.
Bill Davenport is an artist and writer from Houston, whose quirky objects have appeared in many shows everywhere.