Ralph Pugay makes modestly-scaled paintings of humans in situations that are often as absurd (and often quite funny) as they are mundane. Some of these situations include all of the patients in a hospital ward floating into the air, a Chinese food delivery man emerging from a manhole, or Jesus with his cross interrupting a contemporary church wedding. For some, the title will evoke all you need to know, Chicken Pox Orgy, for one, or Presidential Panic Attack. The figures are rendered in a naïve, almost cartoon-like manner. The colors tend to be bright. Some paintings feature art world jokes like Rothkos in Space and others which depict handcuffed prisoners in orange jumpsuits on a hill overlooking Smithson’s Spiral Jetty.
Pugay creates his work around “contradictions as they relate to different kinds of human alienation,” as he puts it, with images, inspired by video games and game shows “in an attempt to convey the idiosyncratic beauty of contemporary life in an age of information anxiety.” As with all good comedy, Pugay says the humor in his work comes from “being self-aware about my insecurities and anxieties about the world and allowing painting to be a coded vessel for me to be vulnerable about communicating them to others. A lot of my work, despite the fact that it is not autobiographical, is really rooted in my attempt to portray things that make me feel uneasy or ideas I feel I have no understanding of.”
Last year, Pugay spent the summer at Skowhegan, the renowned nine-week summer residency program for emerging visual artists. The work he did there was exhibited in two solo exhibitions both titled Crowdsurfer at Virginia Commonwealth University and Vox Pupuli in Philadelphia. Pugay calls Skowhegan a formative experience. Coming out of graduate school he had been thinking of his work in the context of social engagement and conceptualism. He thought of his paintings as visual evidence of language games and institutional logic. At Skowhegan, he began to think about his work as painting, to think about painting as such, and to at least mentally situate his work within a lineage of painters. He’s not sure how the new thinking will play out in his making, but we will all have a chance to find out. Pugay was curated by Amanda Hunt into the Portland2014 Biennial for which he has created work for a billboard. Not only is this a tremendous shift in scale for Pugay, but it also demonstrates a shift in “treatment and sensibility from the rest of my paintings.”
Though he earned both his BFA and MFA at Portland State University, Pugay has had work in shows all over the United States, including the 2012 Annual Exhibition at the Center on Contemporary Art in Seattle, FFDG in San Francisco, and Grounds for Sculpture for a 2010 Student Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture Award Exhibit in Hamilton, New Jersey. His work was selected for inclusion in New American Paintings Exhibition-in-Print, Pacific Coast Edition v.97 by Anne Ellegood, Senior Curator at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. In Oregon, he has had solo exhibitions at Rocksbox Fine Art in Portland, and Ditch Projects in Springfield. he has maintained an active exhibition schedule in Portland for a number of years. Now represented by Upfor gallery in Portland, Pugay will have a solo exhibition with the gallery either late in 2014 or early 2015.