CMNW Council

Empathy and eros: Ralph Pugay’s ‘The Longest Journey’

The paintings and drawings in the artist's solo exhibition at Adams and Ollman use humor as a vehicle for incisive social reflection. Drawing on social media feeds, they feature everything from human caterpillars to zebra surrogates.

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painting with caterpillars and humanoid figures on a multi-leaf branch
Ralph Pugay, Butterfly Village, 2023 acrylic on canvas, 30h x 48w in. Image courtesy of the artist and Adams and Ollman.

Portland-based artist Ralph Pugay’s new solo show at Adams and Ollman invites us to witness life’s undercurrent from multifaceted and often fascinating viewpoints. The exhibition title, The Longest Journey, invokes the magical realist adventure video game from 1999, in which the player controls the protagonist on her journey between parallel universes. Pugay’s eleven paintings and site-specific drawing installation are presented across the gallery’s two spaces, manifesting a contemporary interplay between the IRL and social media realities of our day-to-day lives.  

The exhibition opens with Butterfly Village (2023), an alluring present-day Garden of Earthly Delights (Hieronymus Bosch) that pictures adult humans in various states of emergence from butterfly life stages – crawling naked out of larvae, peeking out of chrysalis, or standing full-frontal with resplendent butterfly wings. This jewel-like painting is a reminder that we continue to go through stages of life as adults, shedding our former selves, and giving birth to new versions of us. This is perhaps especially true for those of us whose childhood or adolescence were interrupted by trauma and displacement, or followed the inner timelines of queerness, with its own stages of emergence. Pugay had writer Sara Jaffe’s reflections on queer alternatives to chrono-normativity in mind as one inspiration for this work. [1]

Almost fifty drawings are installed in the inner chamber of Adams and Ollman in an impressive visual cacophony that shows the artist as his most free. Cherry-picking and distilling images from viral TikTok videos and daily newsfeed, Pugay invokes the highs and lows of a generation given to checking out from IRL life in favor of a scrolling reality. These ink and crayon drawings embrace joy, desire, and vulnerability, and are entangled with the world’s changing gender spectrum, family structures, and social behaviors. 

Rectangular pen and ink drawings of human figures in various positions with additional framing drawn on the wall
Installation view, Ralph Pugay: The Longest Journey, Adams and Ollman gallery, 2023. Image courtesy of the artist and the gallery.

Beard Family, in which body size is the only demarcation of difference, invokes alternate and fluid imaginaries around role play and family constructions. (It simultaneously hints at the force of social reproduction in the heteronormative nuclear family.) In Zebra Butts, humans are given birth to by surrogate animals. Like a random social media feed, we see newly hatched chicks appear, as well as a dominatrix on a scooter, and special agents in wheelie bins. 

Pugay is a gifted draftsman, and he frames these works by painting an architectural mise-en-scene directly onto the surrounding gallery walls with casual aplomb. A fetish leather-masked man lifts his leg to make way for a fellow human to mop the floor, and Pugay suggestively places a mooning butt drawing over the smokestack of a wall-painted ship.

Installation view, Ralph Pugay: The Longest Journey, Adams and Ollman Gallery, Pen-and-ink rectangular drawings with architectural arrangement, water around them
Installation view, Ralph Pugay: The Longest Journey, Adams and Ollman Gallery, 2023. Image courtesy of the artist and the gallery.

Even nestled among this dazzling array, Pugay’s tiny ink-on-paper rendering of Koko, the gorilla is magnificent. (Koko, an inhabitant of San Francisco Zoo, went viral in the ‘70s and ‘80s for his ability to communicate with humans. [2]) In Pugay’s work, the primate looks at us with such wisdom, empathy, and an implicit query of whether we realize what we are doing to him, that it is questionable which is the more intelligent of our species. That Koko has taken to the care of other animals – three kittens cling to him for protection – shows that more equitable power dynamics and loving approaches are possible. Indeed, Koko reappears in another small drawing, learning sign language, debunking one of the last barriers between us. 

Pugay’s respect for the companionship of animals is equally poignant in Panic Attack in Bed, a sketch of a furry cuddle whose title lends weight to how animals are there for us when humans have failed us. Funny Thirst Trap invokes (unfulfilled) human desires; the sketch’s red-eyed cat leans its body against a bathroom doorway, with a sexual posturing familiar from social media. 

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Portland Opera Puccini

Other drawings seem to reflect on and question the social compartmentalization of addiction and houselessness from other aspects of everyday life. A pastel and watercolor entitled Meth Cavern is a quirky but thought-provoking image of drug users, forced underground with the scorpions and snakes, with a defecating individual becoming a visual shorthand for the acts of exposure that accompany houselessness. A pencil drawing dubbed Tripping Neanderthal shows a distant ancestor slumped on a rock. I read the ink drawing Man on the Freeway as a portrait stand-in for the omnipresent human beings begging on our streets, whose framing on the page echoes the passer-by view from a car window. 

As if to acknowledge that many of us blinker ourselves from these struggles in our midst, other paintings in the main gallery depict our means of individual and collective self-preservation with notable irony. Meditation Competition (2023) is a dryly humorous reflection on the wellness industry, replete with big brand sponsorship. Acupuncture School (2023) presents a cohort of bodies sticking needles into other willing bodies while holding DIY-acupuncture learning books in one hand. The various facial expressions of these amateur acupuncturists, from outright fear to casual boredom, is a hilarious, yet insightful reflection on the ways in which we move through this world as a society. 

two paintings - one with sets of figures performing acupuncture on one another and another with figures painting on Egyptian sarcophagi
Installation view showing (left) Ralph Pugay, Acupuncture School, 2023, acrylic on canvas 16h x 20w and (right) Ralph Pugay, Sarcophagus Workshop, 2023, acrylic and flashe on panel. Image courtesy of the artist and Adams and Ollman gallery.

Acupuncture School is hung next to and echoes the gestures of another painting, Sarcophagus Workshop(2023), which depicts “classical Egyptian” artists happily adorning anthropoid coffins. By rehumanizing a culture that is elevated and preserved (and thus made unrelatable and static) into a living reality, Pugay creates an unexpected parallel to his own position as a fellow painter. A long-term Portland resident with an immigrant Filipino background, Pugay often uses humor and self-reflexivity to massage and tease out flattened, ossified, and othered identities, reconsidering issues around cultural equity and difference from other facets. I find it noteworthy that this image is of Egyptian culture specifically, given how its “exceptional” cultural status creates an imaginary distance from its location in Africa, which exposes the racist structuring of the canonized cultural pecking order. 

However luscious and absurd Pugay’s works might appear at first sight, they belie a keen sensitivity to social inequity and a strong awareness of its deep roots in history. This comes to the fore in The Pilgrim Underground (2023), a work depicting a group of lantern-bearing colonists who seem to live on in an underground hole. This significant painting is an uncanny reimagining of how history lies just below the surface of contemporary life. While the dominant historical narratives are written up retroactively to appear justified, the familiar yet ridiculous presence of these starched collar European individuals denaturalizes what now appears self-evident; namely, the settler colony that is the United States.

Human figures in black-and-white "pilgrim" garb - top hats and aprons/bonnets. Figures arranged in a circle in the center of the composition beneath a layer of grass at the top edge of the composition
Ralph Pugay, The Pilgrim Underground, 2023 acrylic and flashe on canvas 30h x 24w in Image courtesy of the artist and Adams and Ollman gallery.

The impossibility of continuing to separate our privileged pleasures from the damage we have caused and continue to inflict on this earth is conjured by Raver Rescue Mission (2023), a painting that shows nocturnal festivalgoers in glow in the dark attire being airlifted from by military helicopters. In conversation, Pugay discussed how this painting was inspired by the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction happenings at the Burning Man Festival in 2023. Widely portrayed as a free-spirited, counter-culture event, the annual festival’s tech-elite funding and permanent carbon footprint on the Nevada desert was largely overlooked until climate change protestors descended upon this year’s edition. As if to prove their point, unprecedented rainfall hit soon after, with the festival goers’ annual “elective luxury suffering” giving way to a mud bath that left them trapped and struggling to survive, rather than merely posturing desert living.[3]  Rendered in acrylic in neon against nocturnal and camo shades, Pugay captures the event as an iconic portrait of human follies and their entanglement in social and political contradictions. 

The Longest Journey is a deeply human, joyfully alive, and thought-provoking show and a testament to the breadth and depth of Ralph Pugay’s practice. 


[1] See, for example, Sara Jaffe, “Queer time: An Alternative to Adulting”, Jstor Daily, January 10, 2018. 

[2] A summary of Koko’s life can be found at “Koko, the Cat-Loving Gorilla Who Learned Sign Language, Dies at 46”, Time Magazine blog, June 21, 2018.

[3] Clementine Wamariya cited by Aja Romano, “The Burning Man Flameout Explained”, Vox, September 06, 2023. 

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CMNW Council


Ralph Pugay: The Longest Journey runs from December 02, 2023—January 06, 2024 at Adams and Ollman, 418 NW 8th Avenue, Portland, Oregon

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Lucy Cotter’s practice encompasses experimental and art critical writing, curating, and performance to engage with art as a form of knowledge production and a site for cultural and political transformation. Recent curatorial projects include Undoing Language: Early Performance Works by Brian O’ Doherty at The Kitchen, New York (2021), and a year-long program as Curator in Residence at Oregon Center for Contemporary Art (2021-22). She was curator of the Dutch Pavilion, 57th Venice Biennale (2017). Internationally published in books, catalogs, and journals including Flash Art, Frieze, and Artforum, she is the author of Reclaiming Artistic Research (2019). Cotter holds a PhD in Cultural Analysis from the University of Amsterdam. Irish-born, she is currently based in Portland.

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