Ruth Boerefijn creates artworks that one's eyes can neither readily classify nor disbelieve. The way infants supposedly look at things, without words and labels, seeing with their whole being, that's the way I see--feel invited or even compelled to see--Ruth Boerefijn's artful creations.
The art installation of hers I am most familiar with is "Barn", at Djerassi in the California gold hills south of San Francisco, north of Big Sur. Did that old ranch barn really need an installation? The barn's appearance was already true and appealing, where in a pacific untroubled landscape its old wood had weathered handsomely and time itself seemed to have mellowed. In that barn, however, Ruth Boerefijn hung from the rafters all-but-invisible fishing lines holding small cut-outs that caught and reflected and mirrored the shafts of light streaming through gaps in the barn's walls. Walking into the barn, once the installation was in place, became a soft astonishment. The air itself looked alive, felt alive. It was quietly dazzling, delighting; the screens of habit and familiarity that dull the act of seeing fell from my eyes. This is the effect Ruth Boerefijn's art has on receptive viewers, rejuvenating the act of perception.
Ruth Boerefijn is one of the premier artists who work beyond words. Older art usually evoked a word-ish reaction in viewers, causing them mentally to respond "Madonna" or "apple" or "Mt. St. Victoire rendered in planes." When more abstract art began the artists wrote manifestoes about it and critics glommed onto to it, as though their written interpretations were the necessary other half of the picture. Human beings are excellent at, indeed we are addicts of, interpretation. Human beings also have only middling-good eyesight. Certain fish in the south Pacific have eyes with twenty or thirty facets that supposedly register lights and colors beyond our ability even to conceive of them. To speak metaphorically, Ruth Boerefijn's installations cause us to look at them with a crossbreed of wild creature's eyes and our own.
How does she do it? The American painter Albert Pinkham Ryder went out one day to a large meadow to paint a landscape. Painting away, Ryder had a reaction similar to the one I had about the Old Barn (sans Ruth Boerefijn's installation.) What, he suddenly wondered, could his paint and art add to the scene before him, which was perfect the way it was. Putting down his brush, Ryder ran in wild circles like an animal through the meadow, adding as it were his energy to the energy already there, rendering (or becoming one with) the landscape that way. Ruth Boerefijn likewise enters her landscapes and locales, but she does it more sensuously and subtly than Ryder did that day, and so brings home from her meditative visual rambles something that did not exist before.
How does she do that? Ruth Boerefijn thinks about what she sees, but far more she feels it, feels and feels and feels it. As she feels it, she registers the patterns of things seen, but the patterns correlate to a delight and excitement within herself. The scene through which she moves she thus absorbs and internalizes. The naturalist John Muir liked, during violent storms, to climb to the very top of a tall tree and ride a swaying branch like a wild bronco. Ruth Boerefijn rides her (gentler) environments, too, until their rhythms are rollicking internally within her. Her installations thus render nature neither realistically nor abstractly but, rather, by giving its essence. Her artworks might be likened to the visual aesthetic blueprint of what, in its more surface manifestations, forms our daily world.
Were I out strolling, I would perceive the visual inventory-a flight of birds overhead, icicles hanging from a tree, a few barren leaves on a branch-far less intensely, far less indelibly than she does. Much of what crosses my path falls into the nebulous category of half-seen neutral acceptableness. Not for Ruth Boerefijn. By the prolonged attention she gives the objects of her attention, and then through the transmutation of her craft, her artwork converts seemingly neutral phenomena into pleasure-giving, exhilarating experience. This is a good way to approach making art in our times. For in these battered and baffling years to give the under-appreciated or the peripheral a presence and meaning of its own is surely something the artist can help us realize. Here, as in all her art, Ruth Boerefijn restocks our diminishing supply of sophisticated visual wonder.