"Live in fragments no longer," E.M. Forster urged in Howards End. "Only connect."
Today, 102 years after the novel was published, we increasingly connect by tweeting, streaming and texting people across the globe as we ignore the people across the dinner table. Laura Ross-Paul confronts our logged-on, checked-out zeitgeist with refreshing nuance in her series Connect. In paintings that marry expressionistic brush strokes with a palette by turns muted and jewel-toned, she depicts young people staring into laptops, iPads and cellphones, oblivious to the natural and human-made wonders that surround them. The teenagers in Light Up and Streaming couldn't care less about fireworks and bonfires during a nighttime beach party; they're too busy IM'ing their friends. Ditto for the girl in Night Lights, who ignores not only her family, but a night sky spectacular enough to rival van Gogh's The Starry Night.
It would be easy to stereotype Ross-Paul, a soulful baby boomer who religiously attends the hippie-flavored Oregon Country Fair, as a holdout for love-ins, encounter groups and the quickly vanishing phenomenon of primary experience. Basically, that's the kind of connection you feel when you give somebody a bear hug, look them in the eye and converse with them so intimately you can smell their hair, their skin, their sweat. But Ross-Paul isn't interested in playing the fogy who condescends younger generations' communications tools. Instead, she paints the glow of iPhone screens with the same reverence and mystical sfumato with which Giotto and Raphael painted the nimbuses of angels and saints. In these works, she poses a strikingly open-ended question: What if the newfangled light of computer displays is every bit as transcendent as the honeyed light that once flickered atop candles and filtered through stained glass?
Nowhere is the artist's aesthetic neutrality and moral ambiguity on clearer display than in the show's most haunting work, Open. In it, a group of tourists poses for a phone pic inside a European cathedral, impatient to upload their collective narcissism into the ether of social media. Behind them stands a lone figure, conspicuously bereft of portable electronic devices, content to "merely" soak up the beauty of Gothic arches and rosary windows. Ross-Paul bathes the figure so completely in the sunlight pouring into the church that its silhouette blanches out into a ghost-white blur, a specter lingering from a past when inhabiting an experience was more pressing than tweeting it.
SEE IT: Laura Ross-Paul's Connect is showing at Froelick Gallery, 714 NW Davis St., 222-1142, froelickgallery.com, through June 2.