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Robert De Niro Sr (left), Barnaby Ruhe (right) 1986 at Soghor Leonard Gallery, Soho, NYC 

Barnaby Ruhe received his doctorate in shamanism and art practice, an interdisciplinary effort combining psychology, anthropology, art history, phenomenology, and art studio action.


He was senior editor of Art/World newspaper in the 1980s and 90s and wrote the first New York City reviews for Francesco Clemente and the Starn Twins, as well as essays on Francisco de Goya, Henri Matisse, Andy Warhol, and Joseph Beuys. Ruhe currently serves on the board of Artists Talk on Art.


A romantic artist at Abstract Expressionism and Portrait and Figure and TextArt,  he incorporates sentiment, gesture, and psychic journeying in his paintings, and he runs shaman healing workshops at Shamandome Camp at the Burning Man festival each summer. He is also a six-time world boomerang champion.

My background is interdisciplinary, with a Ph.D. in "Shamanism and Contemporary Painting Process" where I used Anthropological original source material and borrowed field techniques in researching artists at work. Psychology along with the archetypes, Phenomenology as a cutting tool, Art History, and Art Criticism.

Recurrent themes in my paintings include alia prima - one-shot painting in the spirit of Manet, Fragonard, Henri, and the Expressionists. Blank space, as I discovered in David's Death of Marat' while teaching Art History at the Naval Academy from 1970-1975, has been used to invoke the VOID. My abstracts, portraits, and figurative works are painted in the spirit of attack while letting go, embracing chaos, improvising at one phase in the painting process, to experience Rorschatz free association. As in Jazz, an overlying structure guides serendipity  'in the groove.' Miro was dead on when he insisted that his automaticism yet adhered to 'plasticity of construction.' Modern dancers call this seeming contradiction 'bound flow.'


My unlikely art career began at the Naval Academy at the end of Plebe Year. Stuck in Sick Bay with a light flu, I spent a glorious week sketching. I would never have gone to an engineering school in the first place if the Abstract Expressionists had not fallen from the spotlight by 1964, replaced by Larry Poons' hard-edge lozenges, not to my persuasion. At seventeen, I didn't guess artists could make a career against the grain of fashion. But I seized the petite sketch pad as an escape from my military Gulag, twelve drawings a day anywhere anytime, 3000 racked up by 1968 when I graduated and was on my way to Boiler School to prepare for Destroyer duty when I broke my leg in an automobile accident. Eight glorious months painting ripoffs of Franz Kline, and I was fast becoming an odd Naval Officer. After two tours in Nam, the Navy owed me one, so I asked to teach at the Academy and soon ran the Art History course, concurrently getting my MFA in painting at Babe Shapiro's program at the Maryland Institute, the only place in the States where you didn't need a BFA to get in.


My first exhibition was back in Saigon in 1972 showing 300 portrait sketches of wary war-weary Viets.


My 1973 "Bach Cello Suite #3" was painted with earphones, awash in sound, thinking Kandinsky's visual equivalents of music motifs, hard on the track of his 1910 Spiritual in Art  My 1984 Art/World review of Kandinsky reads:


"The transcendence of Apollo, scientific and premeditated, ruled in Kandinsky's Bauhaus. Dionysus and his irritating arrows of Eros, random and disorderly, was dismissed. Die Brucke was burned; Pan was reduced to 'panic'; and K's expressionist tendency was reduced to the faint odor of Chanel No. 5 pervading an antiseptic clinic." a challenge I pursue these past twenty five years, to adhere to Kandinsky's 1910 treatise even as he abandoned his own field.


In '77, I used officer skills to organize the WHITNEY COUNTERWEIGHT, an artist-run extravaganza with 100 artists in five Soho galleries. The seven jurors were selected on a quota system with four women, three Hispanics, two Blacks, and no names given at the slide viewing. We achieved great demographics. The COUNTERWEIGHT presaged the Times Square and Terminal shows as well as the East Village phenom. Alice Neel painted my portrait to help match our Director's Grant from the NEA.


In 1978 I ran a marathon and the same year coined the PORTRAIT PAINTING MARATHON genre, with a 26.2 hour non-stop painting binge. Exhaustion and performance stress became tools for insight within the painting process. I've held over a hundred marathons since, some as long as 60 hours, discovering that so much work is hacked out that I can shift styles and explore directions in a condensed space of time. Excessive productivity breaks through the wall of the modern mind to reveal the painting animal lurking beneath. A ritual of sitting engages the viewer directly as she steps into my painting. I go for their KA, their life spirit, by hurling paint in order to echo energy fields passing across faces. An empirical approach demands that one paint portraits alia prima, in a rush, in order to deal with spirit.  Duane Hanson and Pearlstein may paint dead people, I don’t.

In 1981 I joined the staff of Art/World writing four reviews per month and rising to Senior Editor under "Boss" Bruce Hooton. Sounding off at raucous staff lunches at the Hotel Wales were Gene Thornton, Frances Beatty, Sarah Stuyvesant King, Paul Jenkins, Robert Motherwell, Judd Tully, Bob DeNiro Sr, Cecily Pennoyer, et alia. My sharp critiques of market motives, museum mishaps, and con artists caused Leon Golub write to A/W: "(Ruhe) is not afraid to swing out, to tell it like it is." I challenged Clement Greenberg's Formalist Reductionism in my PhD thesis "Painter as Shaman" where process is more crucial than product. Greenberg snorted "ineffables! we don't discuss it." when I challenged him about the spiritual journey Pollock was painting from. Pollock the trance dancer, who knew.


My 1982 "Fake Porno" series of twenty paintings played out innuendoes of sexual politics. Since my female collaborator sketched out my body outline on the panel, she set her own terms in the dialogue. Tension on the picture plane.


My 1987 PORTRAIT PAINTING MARATHON at Barbara Braathen Gallery in Noho set twenty 'specific' portraits decalled onto 'random' abstract backgrounds, both painted alia prima, but separately. At the opening, I collaborated with Hassay Jazz Band to paint an 8x8 foot abstraction to music. Unlike paintings created in a studio, the surface remains alive and simmering, the musk's energy remains as an astral ghost. I got percussive with my brush attack. Hassay came up during a TV interview with: "but we were following you." I've collaborated over 20 times with such as Dave Brubeck and Gaumer's Saturday Night Live Band. Jazz embraces the hazard of improvisation within an openwork structure, as do shamans on a trance journey.


In '88 I joined the board of Artists Talk on Art to recreate the spirit of The Club, and moderated panels on Cro-Magnon Then and Now, Graffiti, Shamanism, and American Expressionism with George McNeil and Joan Semmel. My latest panel is an interview with Pat Olezsko.i was touched to interview my buddy Ruth Kligman when she gently responded "but Elaine was in California." 


My 1989 Ph.D. offers a counter to Greenberg's Formalism, proving Chaos to be integral to the expressionist painting process. Letting go in Dionysic frenzy uncovers the greater order of the unconscious. Improvisation need not be a dirty word. It relates to an inspirational phase that psychologist Ernst Kris found to precede an elaborational phase. Arnheim (reluctantly) posits improvisation in his. Entropy and Art, and anthropologist


Victor Turner guides us with his shamanic liminal phase in his Ritual Process. My thesis brought these thinkers together across their respective disciplines.


In 1993 I was honored with a Pollock-Krasner grant to paint mural-size abstracts. At artist Robert DeNiro's memorial service, I explained that he employs a "clash of contraries" within his painterly syntax, which 'fires the Ongon.' An Ongon is a Buryat Shaman dreaming prop made from a set of ordinary objects that become symbolically loaded within a ritual context. My Ph.D. shows how artists can paint quite ordinary motifs but set them afire by creating tension between unlikely pairings. A haiku poem has that unexpected synaptic jump between lines, and Lenny Bruce could whammy you at the end of a joke.


Across the twenty-five-year span of the first half of my painting career, I have tried to stretch stylistically, despite the market's need for trademark styles.  I have been consistent in immersing myself in the unpremeditated moment and enjoyed collaboration as a way of forcing the clash of contraries onto the picture plane. This ritual act fires the Ongon, lighting up the picture into a presence. Either art functions, or who cares.

For me the portraits are “journalistic”, that is, I just paint what is in front of me, No “imagination” necessary. I apparently “see” those weird colors (auras?) that I paint on people’s faces in the oil color portraits. I definitely try to make the marking rhythmically fit the exact energy and mood of the person resonating in front of me. Like the new physicists, I see energy everywhere, call me an animist.


-Barnaby Ruhe

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