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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.

In the current climate of slowdown and reassessment, in a country whose economic health and traditional identity appear to be dissolving, motifs of both preservation and decay seem timely. In exploring the repressed nature of bodily experience, some artists seek to return viewers to an encounter realized physically as well as aesthetically and intellectually -- a gut-level transaction that's a far cry from the impersonality of art's immaculate veneer. Works of this kind are not so much terminal expressions of a disenchantment with culture as they are perhaps last-ditch efforts to restore the mythic and spiritual aspects of life itself. Feeling is made the issue at stake. The emotional charge of materials, the personal relationship to experience, the desire to make contact with something real -- even sacred -- provide the challenge. Such drama is religious, as it frequently addresses the conflict between the inevitability of decay and our lust for preservation. It's reflected in much of the art of our time, art in which death and rebirth, apocalypse and revelation occur at once and within moments of both endings and beginnings.

With the awkwardness and obsession apparent in any expression of genuine emotion, Katherine Hall's haunting installation at West End Gallery comments on the inseparability of life and death. Where does the life go when a body dies? It's a question that many of us at middle age -- faced with the shock of mortality and aging parents -- mull over more frequently than we'd like to admit. And it's a question that prodded Hall to come to terms with the life and impending death of her mother, a former seamstress for Hollywood stars, a talented fashion illustrator and avid reader. She's blind now, has lost her memory and exists somewhere in that limbo between life and death. Hall felt compelled not only to sight her again through metaphor, but to plumb the depths of her soul by examining the monotonous processes that consumed her daily life. Is there something wonderful at the end to console her mother? Is there something beyond?

Hall's installation attempts nothing less than to conjure a palpable spirit. Upon entering the larger gallery, viewers come face to face with an elaborate horse harness composed of bit and bridle, blinders, fulsome girth and driving reins that sensuously loop where the rump would normally be and drape onto the ground like a long wavy tail. Suspended from the ceiling by taut fishing line, the harness looks like a marionette waiting for someone to pull the strings. But the harness also serves as a skeletal structure, a line-drawing floating in space that reveals some sense of a powerful head and body immobilized and brought under control. More mesmerizing than disturbing, the silhouette of oiled and pliable tack emerging from the shadows of the darkened gallery only accentuates the limitations of our senses. The smell of horse sweat, the texture of its fur are replaced by a shell, which we look through only to see nothing but the white walls of the gallery. Hall has lined the floor with clear plastic bubble wrap, effecting a random popping noise that makes your eyes blink and sends a defensive shudder up your spine. Of course, only a bridled horse with blinders could be controlled under such conditions.

The overwhelming frustration and numbness caused by immobility and the fear of treading on new ground find full expression in the smaller gallery. One wall is completely papered with her mother's old cookbook; another is covered with pages from books pertaining to the John Birch Society and McCarthyism (writings that both changed her life and kept her fearful), which Hall has blackened out.

In the center of the wall bearing recipes from the 1940s Woman's Home Companion Cook Book, Hall has placed a framed drawing of her mother's original sketches of sophisticated and haughty women, those Hollywood glamour stars of the '40s: Myrna Loy, Gene Tierney, Joan Crawford and the like. Accordingly, Hall dutifully transcribes portions of her mother's simple line-drawings -- images of hands, eyes and lips -- onto the yellowed and soiled pages extolling the virtues of fruit cups, cake decoration and tuna savory. Some drawings of the eyes look tortured and downright mean. Moreover, hands delicately bringing food to mouth can seem stiffly arthritic or limp and atrophied.

The opposing wall of layered blackened pages, which Hall is methodically erasing during the run of the show, looks like tarred shingles ripped off the roof of a house. Suspended in front of the slatelike wall is a thrift-shop still-life painting. Hall has affixed an X-ray machine behind the cracked and torn canvas, imbuing the image with the eerie glow of stained glass. The light emanating from the machine heats up the canvas and brings to life its mundane image of peaches and grapes, much like the veins of a body. Some cracks have the blinding force of lightning bolts; some tiny slits twinkle like stars. The overall effect of the gallery is that of a tomb. What's more, the pages covering both walls from floor to ceiling have no beginning, middle or end, reflecting additional metaphors of a life caught in limbo.

One senses that Hall's mother never let her guard down. Perhaps she worked on fashion designs and read right-wing propaganda to stay out of trouble, especially during a time when women had few life experiences outside the home. Hall doesn't break her mother's mold. She chooses to come to terms with an unhappy woman who, like many women of that generation, adhered to a single path even though she psychologically rebelled against such an imposed lifestyle.

Taken together, the horse harness and two walls displaying the recipes and pages from group-think hell tally up to considerably more than some personal mid-life, parent-child crisis. Hall's installation aims to penetrate the ongoing conflict of stasis and change, diving into the very core of conditions that keep one fearful throughout life's inevitable processes.

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