Art of Contradiction -- Art of Change

Dean Ruck at Hiram Butler and Katherine Hall at West End

Anyone familiar with Dean Ruck's rough-and-tumble installations will probably expect something on the order of shredded hay bales rather than the nine discrete sculptures the Houston artist has selected for his exhibition at Hiram Butler Gallery. But whereas Ruck's site-specific works have often taken the viewer as their focus and downplayed any autobiographical elements, the highly crafted sculptures of wood (both exotic and rough-hewn) and steel at Butler convey decidedly personal initiatives. The satisfying, abstract biomorphic objects embody a solid mix of aesthetic refinement, art-historical comprehension and intuitive chutzpah, giving us a sense of the person behind the work.

What we perceive are sculptures both strong and vulnerable, tentative and expansive. Obsessively workmanlike in restraint and balance, Ruck's carefully carpentered sculptures allude to the real world and make a slew of erotic associations. In the sinuous swollen works and the hands-on pieces, the pleasures of seduction come together with intimations of menace. Although they share rather obvious thematic concerns -- and often illustrate somewhat simplistic ideas too literally -- Ruck's sculptures are engaging, even gripping, for the range of contradictions they set in motion. Much like two sides of the same coin, his objects reflect internal polarities of material, form and content. The contradictions within Ruck's sculptures, of course, contrast sharply with the craftsmanship with which they are realized. Industrial and organic, mechanical and sexual, inside and outside, passive and aggressive, functional and poetic are just a few oppositions which his sculptures manage to blend in surprising ways.

More than a few pieces exude the healthy touch of whim and humor that we associate with fantasies created in a woodshop. Indeed, one might think it's easy to interlock layers of plywood and make an enigmatic or formal shape -- child's play, literally. But every alignment, every looping curve speaks of aesthetic decision. This sense of deliberation is increased by his craftsmanly, almost fanatical regard for surfaces -- particularly evident in the hanging biomorphic sculpture that looks like a stretched-out tire swing. There is tension as well as buoyancy in its rippling coils of wood animated by color, texture and grain.

Sometimes the plywood is left as-is; sometimes exotic woods, like padauk, are polished up like furniture. For Pegina, a diminutive biomorphic form set on three bulbous tips, the grains of the padauk are glossed to a coffee-table-chic sheen. But the smooth, curvaceous surface is punctured by a gaping mouth-like hole, which suddenly seems visceral and unsightly, perhaps a stylized anus or vagina.

In Ruck's work, the relationships between surface and depth, outside and inside, and the immediately visible and whatever lies beneath it, take concrete shape. Significantly, Ruck's art casts these structural relationships in terms of the human body, especially where physical interaction and mental stimulation momentarily converge. Pick-Up Sticks is a humorous play on the child's game enlarged to formidable proportions. During my visit, over half of the sticks were piled on the floor, and the remainder were leaned up against the wall in pairs or crossing each other. Without a doubt, the sharpened, spear-like ends of the oak and maple sticks seem aggressive, even dangerous. At any rate, the sticks represent an ever-changing maze of dynamic forces, invoking the elemental rhythms of nature. The balance and harmony inherent in the work reflect an Oriental aesthetic, with its concern for placement and demand for concentrated attention and contemplation. As such, Pick-Up Sticks is both ridiculous and very good -- it has depth, absurdity and liveliness.

Similarly with Pick, an outdoor work featuring a huge pick methodically leveled at a chunk of granite. It evokes archetypal forms -- stone, wheel, machine, ax -- which, taken together, give a sense of disturbed balance. At first, the sound and motion of the motor's driving the pick slowly, over and over, into the granite at the same point and with the same pressure is reassuring -- sort of like a sentry. But the sound soon becomes relentless, maddeningly so, even muscling its way through the gallery doors. You're conscious of that convulsive, repetitious and mundane noise while watching the hanging plywood loop sway softly or inspecting the small and poetic "pillow" shaped from padauk wood and bearing a tiny stone. As with most of Ruck's works, the symbolism of Pick isn't difficult to decipher, even as it summons multiple implications. The frustration explicit in this act is akin to beating something against a solid object -- altogether an emotionally savage act, but one that also prescribes infinite patience.

All in all, in terms of form or content, Ruck isn't telling or showing us anything new. His work shares affinities with the spirit of early modern sculpture (Brancusi, Henry Moore) and is informed by up-to-the-minute developments (Dennis Oppenheim, Tom Otterness, Joel Shapiro, Martin Puryear, Louise Bourgeois). Nonetheless, Ruck's wide stylistic range is just one way the artist can address value systems. How does one "pick" through artistic influences that deal with a communal language? How does one attach meaning to a pebble, a pure form that was found by chance and then carried around in a pocket? How does one choose between pick-up sticks? How does simple material accrue value through handling, display and acquisition? Ruck's work mocks the impulse to possess and preserve. But as this exhibition capably shows us, it's all a game of contradictions.

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