“Capsules of information:” Excavating the many layers of Erika Ranee’s abstract paintings

(Ranee's mixed media piece, "Big People," is on display in the Mazmanian Gallery. Photo by Allie Gath)

By Tessa Jillson

Asst. Arts & Features Editor

As an artist and a professor at New York University, Erika Ranee is constantly on the move. Her abstract paintings reflect her high energy while displaying topical issues around black stereotypes.

“I’ve always loved abstract expressionism. … I like messy painters. Explosive work,” she said.

Ranee said she feels “each painting is like a journal entry,” surfacing a variety of emotions and creating a multitude of narratives.

“I like the idea of [narratives] being pushed back and buried. You have to kind of go on a little excavation to get some information. … I think I’m more interested in the visual experience at the end and to see what you come away with,” she said.

Before experimenting with abstract art, Ranee worked on figurative paintings, addressing issues around race and taking a great deal of time researching multiple medias. However, she realized her research slowed her process and “got in the way” of her paintings.

After the death of her brother, Ranee started producing abstract works. She found insight observing the world around her and began by building conversations using text from rap music and black vernacular slang. Her messages are all hidden under layers of inks, gouache, acrylic and vinyl paints.

One day, while shopping at the flea market in Brimfield, Massachusetts, she found postcards depicting stereotypical images.

“There would be these simple sweet messages to home, like, ‘Hi papa, see you soon for supper.’ And then on the flip side is a black man being flogged in the center of town and you’re like, ‘What’s happening here? There’s such a disconnect.’ That was fascinating to me,” Ranee said.

She decided to take the text from the postcards and rewrite them on canvas. Ranee turned the text into form, concealing the words with rich, colorful paints, graffiti art and household materials, such as duct tape and plant life.

“I like knowing it’s there but it’s not being thrown at you,” Ranee said. “I’ve explained specifics here but, you know, I don’t necessarily need you to know that, but I like how the information is stored in there. So, these are all like little capsules of information.”

She worked these texts into her earlier paintings, specifically “The Queen” and “Oh Hell No,” inspired by the industrial structure of Brooklyn. Her paintings are more geometric and flat, but coated in layers of meaning and context.

Senior Jonah Feintuck said, “The composition and the media, like the tape and the leaf, works well with the mediums.”

Some of Ranee’s past themes inform her current works, despite their more ambiguous, free-form nature. Her painting, “Zip-A-Dee-A,” named after the song from a racist ’50s Disney movie called “Song of the South,” censors history in art. The piece reawakens present day issues while creating an earthy feel.

“Zip-A-Dee-A” was the result of an accidental water spillage while testing new colors. The shellac crusted over to create a gritty natural texture.

Ranee said, “I like the idea of mixing something beautiful with something gritty. I like nature, entering it. I feel like some of these paintings have a space that feels internal, inside the body. I think my new work is entering that even more, exploring that even more.

“It’s experimental, I don’t have rules. … I just use what is attractive to me and see how it works. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. But, I feel like half the time my mistakes turn out really good,” she said.

Her other mixed media paintings reflect a systemless pattern, fierce and prominent in energy. Her painting “Big People” was made using thick black lines, and unconventional materials like duct tape and newspaper. The work is constructed to express stability in a looser form. Black lines cut the painting into sections while figures resembling faces are stuck inside blocked structures. Securing the image are small pieces of duct tape, as if to keep the painting from crumbling in on itself.

Senior Kelsey Goossens said, “I like how she uses household materials, different textures, shiny red paints, and how some sections are transparent.”

Tim McDonald, art professor and director of the Mazmanian Gallery, met Ranee at a Vermont studio center in 2009 and for years wanted to display her artwork at FSU.

He commented on one of Ranee’s darker works, “Smile 1.” The painting contains mostly yellow and black paints with a crisscrossed line mirroring a crooked smile. Ranee said the painting was inspired by French painter Jean Dubuffet. McDonald recalled how “the tension between the title and what you see is really kind of interesting” and disconnected.

Ranee said after years of exploring she has finally found her voice through abstract art and advised studio art majors not to get distracted by what others want, but to “be driven by what your vision is.”

“It’s tough” finding your voice, she said. “I had everything planned to the nth degree with [older, representational] paintings, and now I’m just free-falling.”

Ranee’s artwork is on display in the Mazmanian art gallery until Sept. 29.

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