It took just a brief moment for artist Terry Ratliff to scout up a couple chairs and place them pretty much in the center of his solo exhibition the other day at the Kachmann Gallery. The seven-time whatzup Whammy award winner as Best Visual Artist, although early for the interview, moved quickly. That's the way he works. Sizing up the situation (the second-floor studio he's occupied for the past four years was not in shape for a visitor) he figured out a way to make it work. Shazam! He'd turned the page and we were on to it. At 40 Ratliff remains in a hurry. Not rushed or anxious but definitely direct. He'd just finished a working lunch with some patrons to tie down a two-piece commission and needed to head home to tackle a roof patching chore on his near South Side house while the warm weather held.
"It's a little unique to be so busy in the summer," he suggested. "Typically things slow down around this time of the year. There's usually not a lot of fine art stuff, just festivals, vacations, family-type things. We had a great opening, lots of people, but not a lot of sales off the wall. Yet I'm staying busy with no complaints."
His current show runs through mid-August and contains some 38 pieces, his largest ever one-man showing. In the last decade the painter has shown in group exhibitions at the Castle Gallery, Artlink, Henry's and at the former Avant Garde space. In addition, his works – both hanging and murals – are familiar to patrons of Casa Restaurante sites and the now defunct Harvey's/Ernie's clubs, as well as visitors to the Fort Wayne International Airport Terminal.
He's done several corporate pieces for DePugh, the orthopedic implement manufacturer in Warsaw, and will soon take on a similar commission for that firm's Florida headquarters. Shortly, his design for the center of the version of a Monopoly-style board game featuring local landmarks, a project of Leadership Fort Wayne, will be in circulation. Earlier this summer he participated in the filming of a John Commorato, Jr. production slated for showing at the Fort Wayne Art Museum in October. Cast as a friend of the lead narrator, he plays (what else?) a painter.
Sporting a glowing bronze tan with sunglasses perched atop his chiseled facial features Ratliff imbues an active energy he cultivates through playing tennis, working out, tending his garden and keeping up with his three dogs. To stimulate his intellectual side, Ratliff relies on music to drive the time he spends in the studio. "There's not a lot I don't really like. I listen to bluegrass, the Stones, the Beatles, some classical things, and of late I've gotten into Annie Lenox. Her lyrics and the pain she portrays in them get to me," he explained.
"Not many people know I'm a sports nut. I follow basketball, football, and just last month I was totally engrossed with the World Cup in Germany.
"When I make time I like to read art history and biographies to get some insight into how artists, musicians and other creative people work but mostly I try to stay current with the news by reading newspapers and magazine pieces. Things are tough in the world today, and we are at war. Sometimes I get disappointed that people don't realize that."
As to that conventional summertime activity of reading novels or larger works of literature, Ratliff confesses uneasiness.
"I don't understand how my partner can recline in a corner for four hours to plow through a book inches thick," he recounts. "Whenever I start a novel I get antsy and start thinking, 'I could be up working and accomplishing lots of stuff.' Don't get me wrong, I like to read a lot, but my attention span is just shorter, I guess. Besides, he's an English teacher and that comes with his turf."
The Kachmann show, which encompasses mostly recent works, is encyclopedic in its exploration of styles. A Cubist deconstruction here, an impressionistic still life there. On another wall one finds a pure abstract expressionist piece complementing a color-field eye-grabber. And don't miss the neo-realistic portrait and the exquisite paper collage.
Collectively the works share a distinct "Ratliff style." Mostly they are composed of thick, rich colors with lots of emotion. Not excessively vibrant or garish yet not sublimely subdued, the works fall somewhere in the middle of that envelope.
There's a European feel to the images, acquired perhaps by his earlier studies in Italy and France after he graduated from Franklin College. One of his earliest influences was from his mother's work as a painter. "I remember growing up watching her do portraits. She was more than just a 'Sunday' painter, but it was frustrating for her, finding acceptance," he recalled.
There are some subtle bows to the influence of the German expressionists like Edvard Munch, Max Beckman, George Rouault and Emile Nold. His most mature paintings give off hints of the Spaniard Picasso and the Italian Modigliani.
As offered in his artist's statement, Ratliff distinguishes himself from his contemporaries by incorporating huge portions of emotion in his palette.
"My subject matter and form come to me as I attempt to express, symbolize or draw what I'm feeling. My work isn't so much about what I intend, but more like what I feel. And that changes. If I had to do just still lifes or portraits or whatever, I simply couldn't do it for long. I crave change."
This show provides the evidence and gives credence to Ratliff's coda. While some pieces may not be easily understood or appreciated, the exhibition as a whole signals the twin messages of an artist content at work and at play.