John Ruppert at the Chicago Cultural Center

Vulcan, patron of smiths, is also John Ruppert’s muse. Fascinated by the earth’s magma and its geological extrusions, and drawn to the industrial forge, which mimics the process of vulcanism, Ruppert casts his sculptures in aluminum, bronze and iron. His obdurate forms can address themselves to nature or to the brawny technology of heavy manufacturing; they are also strongly narrative, relating the history of their own making.

The earliest piece in the exhibition, Ingot and Mold (1983), is neatly didactic: a 5 1/2-foot steel trough, standing on end, accompanies the bronze prism that took shape inside it, recalling the Process art of the late 1960s, when Richard Serra documented his sequential castings in lead. Another self-explicatory work, Glacier Boulders (1993), is composed of a real rock and its two “portraits” in bronze and aluminum. Comparing the original and its simulacra, one thinks inevitably of the foundry, of the molten metals and sand shells that Ruppert used to produce these elegant impostors. And, of course, granite itself is an igneous rock, the end product of a comparable fiery formation over geological time.

A series of “Lightning Strikes” consists of long, slender totems Ruppert cast from the splintered fragments of storm-damaged trees. Freestanding or propped against the wall, these sculptures pay tribute to the once-living tree as well as the flashing force that instantly destroyed it. Most recently, with his “Pumpkin Series” (1996), Ruppert began an investigation of organic form: here, a ponderous, 600-pound gourd is frozen in time, its mass memorialized in an edition of five cast-and-welded aluminum replicas that testify to nature’s fecundity. The sagging weight of these gigantic fruits suggests a moment of ripeness, poised between expansive growth and collapsing decay. Although these works depart from the artist’s earlier celebrations of metallurgy, they still exhibit traces of their manufacture, in welded seams and excess metal that curls from the surface like peeling skin.

Echoing the pumpkins’ bulbous bodies were two huge onion-shaped works made from chain-link fencing: the 11 -foot Vortex (1994), suspended by cables from the ceiling, and Chamber (1995), almost as tall, standing imposingly on its own. What these lacy fence-vessels convey most of all is a kind of biological, even sexual subtext to Ruppert’s oeuvre. They are uterine, inspiring fantasies of safety and protection, just as the lightning pieces are powerfully phallic and the pumpkins, pregnant and nurturing. Ruppert’s gift, his technical savvy, is such that he can imbue these cold, hard metals with a sense of organic vitality.

[This show traveled to the Virginia Arts Center and is now at the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art, Nov. 15, 1996-Jan. 26, 1997.]