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Telling a Tale of the Mysterious and the Mundane

Art review: Despite the typical nature of Ellis Ruley's little-known story, his paintings show revealing ingenuity.


SAN DIEGO — The story of little-known painter Ellis Ruley (1882-1959) is in many ways a not uncommon tale. A laborer with scant education and restricted opportunities in life, he was about 57 before he suddenly got the urge to pick up a brush and teach himself to paint. Sixty of those pictures, none of them precisely dated but most of them probably made in the 1940s and 1950s, are the subject of a curious traveling exhibition currently at the San Diego Museum of Art.

For a vernacular artist, making paintings or sculptures rarely if ever represents a wish for active participation in the larger secular discourse of art. Instead, art functions as a visual record of a private conversation, often between the artist and his or her idea of God. Ruley's paintings show ingenious ways in which he wed familiar religious and biblical themes to a highly personal sensibility.

For all the typicalness of his story, however, Ruley's is also an unusually interesting tale. As told by collector Glenn Robert Smith in a slim picture book published in 1993--independently of this show, which was organized by the San Diego museum but unfortunately has no catalog--his is a modern mystery that begins with an ironic windfall and ends with the possibility of murder.

Ruley was born and lived all his life in the small city of Norwich, in southeastern Connecticut. In September 1929 he was badly injured in a traffic accident; three years later he was awarded the handsome sum of $25,000 in compensatory damages.

Between the day of the accident and the time of the settlement, Wall Street collapsed and the country sank into the Great Depression. With his unexpected financial godsend, though, Ruley never had it so good. He bought a house on three acres of wooded land, furnished it well and acquired a brand-new Chevrolet. ("The Green Hornet," he called the car.) He also took a second wife--Wilhelmina, who had once been married to Ruley's brother.

If, in the midst of economic anguish all around, Ruley's sudden prosperity was enough to cause some tensions with his neighbors, the potential for conflict was almost certainly aggravated by other facts. Ruley was black, the son of slaves, married to a white woman and living in an area that, even into the 1980s, claimed its noxious share of Ku Klux Klansmen.

After World War II, when Ruley's son-in-law turned up dead under suspicious circumstances, his tall and lanky body found stuffed head-first into a narrow well, the event turned out to be a gruesome portent. Eleven years later, on Jan. 16, 1959, the partially frozen body of Ellis Ruley was found in his blood-stained driveway. As with his son-in-law, his death was ruled an accident.

These sketchy details of Ruley's life are significant insofar as they illuminate the most compelling feature of his art. The paintings are notable for the curious tenor of their subject matter, more than for the frequently less-than-inspired way in which they are painted.

Most of the modestly scaled paintings were executed on poster board or Masonite. They are marked by a distinctly graphic quality, with flat patterning rendered in blunt colors.

Ruley painted with ordinary oil-based house paints from the local hardware store, which usually results in hard, shiny, unappealing surfaces and doesn't allow for much maneuverability or nuance in the details. His figures, for example, all have essentially the same face, while landscapes tend to be overrun with tedious, crudely differentiated expanses of green.

In subject, though, these pictures can be compelling. What unites the various scenes Ruley depicts--farm life, a boating accident, hunting, cowboys, nearly abstract waterfalls--is their pastoral environment. A kind of mid-20th century Peaceable Kingdom is shot through with an underlying sense of anxiety or even threat.

There are some wild pictures, including a delightfully salacious image of a circus clown eyeing an elephant girl and three near-hallucinatory visions of woodland waterfalls. Easily the finest, though, is "Adam and Eve," which at 39 by 43 inches is also by far the largest painting.

The couple is shown sitting in a walled garden beneath the Tree of Life, attended by a pair of cows, a pair of goats and a lamb, with their eyes locked on one another and oblivious to the slithering serpent above. (The cows seem less sanguine, as if their animal sense has been alerted to impending doom.) Neither Adam nor Eve appears reticent in the decision to eat the apple, and neither seems the seductive instigator in the event.

Paradise may be lost, the picture seems to say, but we are mutually consoled in the union of one another.

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