June 30-August 12, 2017
form & concept, Santa Fe
I went to Rebecca Rutstein’s Fault Lines expecting to see in her paintings a comment, a reflection, or a transformation of the topographical or the diagrammatic. Rutstein spent months at sea, studying sonar mapping of the ocean floor, and while I was busy trying to see these maps in her paintings, canvases layered with bright acrylic, superimposed with flatly painted wire frames, I learned from the gallery attendant that some of these were actually from her work with cloud structures. So I began to see them as clouds—or as formed by the internal architecture of clouds—but I also began to wonder about the limits of abstracting the already abstract. A diagram of a cloud, a rendering of a “4-D” map of the ocean floor—while these refer to natural phenomena and attempt to render digitally shapes found in the natural world, in the abstract they lose the specificities of place and climate from which they were drawn. This is to some extent Rutstein’s project. “When you’re looking at one of the paintings,” she says on the gallery’s blog, “you’re not sure if you’re looking at something through the lens of a microscope or a satellite image of, say, the planet’s surface.” Some of Rutstein’s titles gesture at her research, at times playfully, like Hot Bed or Strong Reaction, language that toggles between the human and the geologic but never quite settles in either realm.
The paintings’ shapes and colors are delightful, especially those that seem distorted by light through moving water, like Slanted and Enchanted. Rutstein’s work imports color and line from the digital realm—the topographic maps she viewed on a computer screen while at sea—and uses as its background the movement of the ocean itself, as she pours paint and allows it to drip and wave with the swaying ship, processes she brought back with her to dry land. But the lines of her diagrams, her curving grids, are freehand and somewhat messy up close, making the effect of the paintings for me more powerful at a distance. This freehanded digital imagery and repurposing of neons from the screen onto canvas is eye-catching, and it is most interesting when she starts to reshape the maps.
Rutstein’s sculptures, laser cut metal that she has bent by hand, have found their homes on the sides of parking garages. Under “Projects” on her website, she lists “Public Art,” “Corporate Commissions,” “Private Commissions,” “Philadelphia Airport,” “Artist at Sea,” and “Limited Edition Prints.” Of these, which would she say is most akin to her project? Her artist’s statement mentions “interest in biology, geology, and the undercurrents that continually shape and reshape our world.” “These forces,” the artist writes, “—from gradual erosion to violent upheaval—are powerful metaphors for life experiences and the ebbs and flows of relationships.” Conceptually, I love the idea of tracing affective and relational human experience through the topographical, the earthly, using the tectonic as metaphor. Fault Lines, then, could be read to take on both geological faults that expand and contract to shape the earth’s surface and intentional fault, a casting of blame on human actions. The link that seems obvious to me here, what runs along the fault line between human behavior and geology, is the changing climate and the shifting tectonic plates as we draw more and more oil from beneath them. Who is at fault, she could have asked, for this increasing unsteadiness? But this is not Rutstein’s question, nor her line of interest. Perhaps such direct engagement in ongoing environmental damage is not a useful question for her work; perhaps such engagement would not produce shapes and colors so boisterous and enjoyable, so easily mounted on the side of a condo building just about anywhere, lit by LED. For my part, I would love to see the artist engage more candidly with the changing natural phenomena that inspire her.