Culture- ART FEATURE- Torch songs: Dona Ruff's burnt offerings

Looking at Dona Ruff's exhibition, "And on the seventh day..." currently hanging at Piedmont Virginia Community College, I suddenly remembered my college friend Andy's favorite joke. If we ran across something provocative while studying, he'd inevitably ask, "What would Freud say about that?" I'd start speculating only to have him interrupt with "Nothing! He's been dead for years!" Ba-dum-bum. (Quit groaning. Keep reading.)

Andy's questionable humor came to mind because nine of Ruff's pieces incorporate pages taken from a yellowing copy of Freud's Interpretation of Dreams. Each two-page spread– excerpted from chapters with titles like "Wish Fulfillment," "Manifest and Latent Tendencies," and "Uncertainties and Criticisms"– forms a frame around a rectangle resembling a Rorschach blot. But instead of inking over Freud's words, Ruff has created abstract patterns by carefully burning away bits, creating laceworks of charred-edged holes mirrored across the spine.

Re-working printed pages is an ongoing exploration for Ruff, a former book designer and illustrator whose family ran a Chicago scrap paper company. "The relationship between printed text and perception is one of the themes of my work," she writes in her artist's statement. For the current project, Ruff playfully acknowledges that what viewers see in art often has more to do with their own projections than what the artist intends.

Ruff's Freud series is both technically intriguing and aesthetically beautiful. The burned patterns are so intricate they appear to be laser-cut, but Ruff has created them manually, allowing tiny variations to enter that prevent the mirrored halves from being identical. She engages ideas of structure, chaos, and constructed chaos by interrupting the pages' horizontal lines of text with organic-seeming sprays of holes that collectively resemble trees' branches or a neural network.

Going beyond the psychological sources for the series, Ruff also raises questions about perception by conflating negative and positive space. Which is the true negative space in her work– the burnt-out holes or the bits of page surrounding and running between the sepia-edged empty areas? And what of the non-existent marks made by the shadows cast on the mounting paper underlying the pages?

Ruff also presents five burns on plain paper. The two smallest pieces are her least successful, seeming almost like afterthoughts. The larger "Fluence," however, is perhaps Ruff's strongest work and takes the viewer in new directions by introducing elements of asymmetry to the artist's symmetrical fire. Provocative– I wonder what Freud would say?

Dona Ruff's exhibition, "And on the seventh day...," is on view through May 17 in the V. Earl Dickinson Building at Piedmont Virginia Community College. 961-5202.


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