The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

History, Recycled

Depression-era photos get drenched in color for a modern audience

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America loves to romanticize the good old days. In “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” painter Lisa Ruyter’s new show at Connersmith gallery, the artist asks viewers to consider whether those days really were so good, let alone better than the ones we live in now.

Ruyter’s paintings re-imagine some of the most well-known photography to come out of the Great Depression. The Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information, a New Deal program, was formed in the Department of Agriculture in 1935 to help farm families in extreme rural poverty. It also had the unintended consequence of creating one of the most prolific archives of photography of the 20th century — including the work of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange — which artists continue to draw inspiration from today. In fact, the title of Ruyter’s show takes its name from a photography book by Evans and writer James Agee that focused on sharecropper families of that era in the American South.

Ruyter’s paintings start with those images as a reference point; she then invigorates them with treatments of radioactive color, taking them out of the past and into a high-resolution, oversaturated present.

Ruyter, who was born in D.C. and now lives in Vienna, Austria, says the works are expressions of anxiety; in the throes of the Great Recession, it’s hard not to draw comparisons between that impoverished era and now. Ruyter says those “spooky parallels” are intentional: They reflect another era of struggle and suffering, presented in bright, distinctly modern colors often reserved for literal caution or warning signs on the street.

“The way we read images is in evolution,” Ruyter says. Images are constantly recycled, context is everything — and it’s always changing.

Ruyter’s paintings reflect America’s past back to us with a drastic new coat of paint, “dissolving of our understanding of representation” and upending the idea that there was ever some bygone moment when we were somehow more “authentic” as a nation.

by Express contributor G.M. Martinez

Connersmith, 1358 Florida Ave. NE; through Oct. 20, free; 202-588-8750.